Lawyers from Carter Lemon Camerons LLP have assisted the rightful beneficiaries of an estate in securing the inheritance to which they are entitled after a prominent ‘heir hunter’ wrongly had the estate made subject to the intestacy rules.
On Friday 9 November 2018, a judge at Central London County Court also ordered the ‘heir hunter’, Andrew Fraser of Fraser and Fraser, to pay the beneficiaries’ costs.
The case concerned the estate of Mrs Tessa Amstell, the wife of the late Jazz musician, Billy Amstell, who died in January 2011.
Mrs Amstell had made a Will in 2009, with the assistance of her niece, which left her £500,000 bungalow to her nephew, Martin Amstell, and approximately £130,000 to 22 animal charities. After her death, the original Will was mislaid and ultimately only a copy of it could be found.
The property had been left vacant for some time and the local council enlisted the services of Mr Fraser, who has appeared on the BBC One television programme Heir Hunters to find the rightful heirs to the estate.
He made enquiries to identify blood relatives and this led them to Mrs Amstell’s niece, who immediately told him of the Will that had gone missing.
Despite this, Mr Fraser sought a Grant of Letters of Administration from the Probate Registry on behalf of an intestate beneficiary, giving him control of the administration of the estate. He changed the locks of the bungalow, forced open a safe, removed all the contents including family items and placed the property in an auction, despite the family’s protests.
He also cashed in more than £68,000 in shares and savings, before transferring them into Fraser & Fraser’s bank account.
The judge agreed that Fraser has been wrongful and deliberate in failing to disclose to the Probate Registry that he was aware of the Will and criticised Fraser for failing to give notice of the application to the executrix or Mr Amstell.
Mr Fraser later conceded the validity of the Will but resorted to attempting to show that Mrs Amstell lacked testamentary capacity when she made the Will on account of her mental state. Having found no evidence to support this assertion, he withdrew his opposition but proceeded to argue that he was entitled to substantial sums in respect of the work he had carried out in relation to tracing the relatives and also in connection with the administration of the estate he had carried out together with all his legal fees.
This claim for the revocation of the Grant of Letters of Administration as well as the admission of the copy Will became the subject of increasingly vitriolic and costly litigation.
Handing down his judgment at Central London County Court on Friday 9 November 2018, His Honour Judge Gerald criticised Mr Fraser for acting in a “wholly cavalier” and “reckless manner” in misleading the court as he sought to obtain the Grant of Letters of Administration.
Meanwhile, he described the litigation that followed as “an abject lesson on how not to conduct litigation”.
The judge granted probate in respect of Mrs Amstell’s Will and revoked the Letters of Administration that had been wrongly granted to Mr Fraser.
He also ordered Mr Fraser to pay all of Martin Amstell’s costs on an indemnity basis with £100,000 plus VAT payable immediately. Mr Fraser will also need to meet his own costs, which are estimated to be in excess of £130,000.
Francesca Flood, an Associate in the firm’s Litigation Department, said: “Our client is delighted that Tessa’s wishes will be fulfilled and that her assets will pass to her nephew and the selected charities despite the best efforts of Mr Fraser to deprive them of their entitlement. Hopefully, this case will be a lesson to him and other heir hunters, albeit an expensive one.”
Neil Acheson-Gray, a Partner and Head of the firm’s Private Client Department, said: “This sends out a clear warning to heir hunters everywhere not to put profit before principle and not to plunder the estates of the elderly on the pretext that there is no valid Will.
“Those who stood to inherit may have lacked specialist knowledge in this area, but this did not entitle Mr Fraser to step in initially or cling to the prospect of a large commission from the blood relatives, long after this was no longer a reasonable expectation.
“By doing so, he has put the family to considerable expense and the stress of adversarial litigation for no valid reason and he has been justly penalised in costs.”
Dov Ohrenstein, barrister at Radcliffe Chambers, Lincoln’s Inn, was instructed by Carter Lemon Camerons LLP to act for Mr Amstell.