About 12 months ago I received a letter ostensibly from a company carrying out genealogical research for law firms. It said they were dealing with the estate of someone who had left money to my late mother, who died about 20 years ago. They wanted me to authorize them to take action to transfer the bequest to me, taking a percentage of the sum as commission. The did not state the size of the bequest, but noted that it would depend on their success or failure in processing other claims on the same estate.

The letter was accompanied with a professional-looking multi-page brochure, and the company had an extensive professional-looking website.

My thought was that at best this was a mix-up of names, but since the company was not asking for any personal or financial information about me or my late mother that they had not already stated in the letter, except for confirmation of my date and place of birth, I decided to go along with it and authorized them to proceed.

I heard nothing until a few days ago, when a letter arrived ostensibly from a different firm of solicitors, stating they were dealing with the person's estate (she had died without making a will), had used the genealogy research company to trace a more than 100 relatives of the deceased who were beneficiaries of the estate, and enclosing a cheque for my share of the total. Given the large number of claimants, I was a little surprised by the size of the cheque - close to a 5-figure sum.

This firm of solicitors also looks legitimate - they have a website, a high street address in the area where my mother used to live, etc. The cheque is apparently drawn company's named account with major UK bank, not an anonymous money transfer company.

The name and date of death appears genuine - a google search found a report of her death (she was living in a care home, aged over 90) in the obituary column of a local newspaper.

All that seems fine, but there are a few "red flags" lurking in my mind:

  • The first letter contained absolutely no information about the deceased person, except her name, which was a very common one (Mary Smith) - probably the sort of name one would choose, if setting up a scam?

  • The story has changed from "someone left money to your mother, who is dead, and we want to pass it on to you" in the first letter, to "someone died without making a will, and you are one of their relatives" in the second.

  • The name itself did not "ring any bells" regarding friends of relatives of my mother who I knew of.

  • My mother had lived in this area for the whole of her life, and never mentioned any relatives she had lost touch with.

  • An email to the solicitor named in the second letter produced an immediate out-of-office reply, but no further response. I have not (yet) tried to contact them by other means - e.g. by phone or via their website.

Cash the cheque and celebrate my good luck, or call the police?

UPDATE 10 Nov 2018:

Curiouser and curiouser: Today I received a letter from someone in another part of the UK, headed "Dear Family" and purporting to explain the circumstances surrounding the end of Mary Smith's life.

To add to the mixed messages, it states that two of her relations have been "spent many months working hard" on the administration of the estate - no mention of the two legal firms who (ostensibly) sent the previous letters!

After a couple of pages of family history, the punchline is "we have decided to gift whatever sum we are entitled to, to [yet another private individual, who was involved in caring for her at the end of her life] and we invite you do to the same, by sending a personal cheque to [contact details] ...

Now that's the sort of scam I have heard about before!!

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    As for the "more than 100 relatives" - that number may not be implausible, depending how far back the search had to go to find any relatives of the deceased, since my maternal grandmother was one of 11 sisters, and my maternal grandfather one of 12 brothers! – alephzero Nov 9 at 13:08
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    If you get another letter stating they made a mistake and to return a portion of the money back to them, then you know it definitely is a scam. – pboss3010 Nov 9 at 13:38
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    @BobBaerker fair comment, but in the UK (unlike the US) most people (including myself) don't have a lawyer. I've got by just fine for nearly 70 years without needing one so far! Also, both letters ostensibly come from law firms already. – alephzero Nov 9 at 13:54
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    @alephzero in the US, most people also don't HAVE a lawyer. They just find one when they need one (exactly like you can in the UK), which is what you should do here – user73687 Nov 9 at 16:01
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    @alephzero "But whether those firms have had any involvement at all in the affair is not so clear". So call them up and ask them. Qwerky's comment about the Law Society is spot on. – RonJohn Nov 10 at 20:01

10 Answers 10

up vote 157 down vote accepted

In any instance where your hackles are raised about a possible scam, but you have reason to move forward regardless, approach with caution, and complete whatever due diligence you can, without direct contact from the potential scammers.

ie: if they've given you a phone number in the letter, don't call that number to confirm legitimacy. Instead, Google the name of the firm. First, confirm they are legitimate [if you start googling 'Smith & George Practitioners of Law, LLP', and it autocompletes to 'Smith & George Scam?', that's another red flag]. Check reviews of their work, and check 3rd party websites for linkages to associations. ie: Don't trust a seal of approval on their website that shows they are 'UK Board Certified' or whatever, instead go to the website for the UK Board of Certification, and see if they are listed as a member. In this specific case, in the UK you can use solicitors.lawsociety.org.uk, per the helpful tip of @Qwerky in the comments.

After confirming they are legitimate, contact their main reception number from the website that you searched not the number that was given to you in the letter. Ask to be transferred to the person indicated on your letter, and request that they confirm that they were the ones to send the letter in the first place. Note - you should do this for both entities which are listed in the letters - the geneological research firm + the law firm that later provided the cheque. This would have been a good thing to do before sending a reply in the first place.

This will allow you to confirm - (a) that the firm exists, (b) that the firm is not visibly just a front for something illegal; and (c) that the existing firm sent you the letter. Note that this does not yet confirm legitimacy. There are some shady businesses out there, and you may not be able to tell immediately that the person contacting you is more 'Saul Goodman' than 'Atticus Finch'. So now you need to approach the payment carefully.

For the cheque itself, I would advise you to raise the risk of potential illegitimacy to the bank. You could advise them when cashing the cheque that you have had no prior contact with the law firm that provided the cheque to you, and that you want a confirmation when the true payment has actually cleared - this may be weeks later depending on where the payment is coming from. Given that you would only complete this step after confirming legitimacy of the law firm and the legitimacy of your letter being from that firm, your risk at this point should be low.

Given that the cheque is drawn from a local bank, it may even be worth your time to create an account with that bank for the purposes of cashing this cheque - this could help them more immediately confirm the legitimacy of the cheque.

Finally - make sure you spend none of the money until you've gotten something from the bank confirming that it has fully cleared - you don't want to pay any fees for overdrawn payments after this cheque bounces.

There is still a possibility here that you are in stage 1 of a possible scam. Approach with caution. For a near 5 figure sum, you may want to hire your own lawyer to advise you on your best course of action, though I imagine that might cost you a few hundred pounds, at least.

For the record, while your story contains many of the tell-tale signs of a scam, the following are the pieces of information that would make me cautiously optimistic about investigating further, instead of simply trashing:

  • They got the name of your relative correct [although likely there is public info out there linking your name with theirs, that means this is more targetted than mass/automated];
  • They waited 12 months before handing you a cheque [scammers will want to move quickly while they have piqued your interest];
  • They are being paid by reducing the amount of the cheque they sent you [a legitimate way to be compensated for services], rather than by sending you the full amount and asking for a partial refund [a common method of the 'cheque-clearing scam']; and
  • The cheque is ostensibly from a major, local bank [scammers will often purport to be sending funds from offshore accounts with banks you've never heard of].

None of the above is a guarantee of legitimacy, and the red flags you've noted should all be taken seriously, but there is enough here that if it were me, I would move forward incredibly cautiously.

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    FWIW, this kind of heir-tracing is a slightly common and legitimate thing in the UK, so while you're right to encourage caution, I think it probably isn't stage 1 of a scam. – Ganesh Sittampalam Nov 9 at 15:26
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    @GaneshSittampalam To be honest I would tend to agree with you, but for reference of future readers [who might meet all of the red flags above + others not present for the OP, and who might might 1/2 of the 'green flags' above], I want to reiterate that this is dangerous territory. Perhaps I rode the line to harshly, but I think 'cautiously optimistic' is the right tone for this specific event. For reference I have changed the tone of that sentence to reflect this fact. – Grade 'Eh' Bacon Nov 9 at 15:33
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    wow, an 'is this a scam?' question that might not actually be a scam. – Mr.Mindor Nov 9 at 17:49
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    @Mr.Mindor Your optimism may have been premature. See my update to the question. – alephzero Nov 10 at 12:19
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    @blankip I can only suggest you read alephzero's own answer :-) – Ganesh Sittampalam 2 days ago

To close this out, in fact it wasn't a scam, despite the third letter.

The contact details in the second letter checked out against the Law Society website, so I gave them a ring on their general contact number.

The "out of office reply followed by silence" was simply because someone had forgotten to change their message from "I'm out of the office at present" to "I will be away from the office for the next 2 weeks." They were indeed administering the estate and posted the cheque before they went away.

According to the solicitors, the situation was that prior to the death of Mary Smith's husband 15 years ago, all the family financial affairs had been organized by him.

He was a senior trade union official representing one of the major industries in the area, which explains the large size of the estate. He left everything to his wife, but she was pretty clueless about how to manage the situation, and relied on the advice of a friend who was not a family member.

In the 14 years between her husband's death and her own, things became increasingly disorganized, but the friend who was acting as unpaid advisor was convinced that there was a will which left everything to her, since the couple had no children of their own.

In fact it turned out there was no will at all, which left the friend with nothing, and the estate distributed among the descendants of uncles, aunts, and half-cousins (including myself) who were the nearest surviving relatives that could be found.

The third letter would seem to be an (optimistic!!) attempt by another family member to smooth other the resulting feud with the aggrieved friend, by asking the beneficiaries to "do the decent thing" and give their share of the estate to the person who thought she was going to get what she had spent years "working for," unpaid.

So far as I'm concerned, she can go jump in a lake - I don't "do charity". She had 14 years to persuade Mary Smith to make the will she wanted, and failed - so that's not my problem!

Something tells me this might not be the end of the story - but it is the end so far as the legacy itself is concerned. According to the solicitors, the only way to make a legal challenge to the distribution of funds in the absence of a will is for all the recipients under the "standard rules" to agree to a change - and guess what, some of them won't do that!

UPDATE - 15 Nov 2018

I have just received an unsolicited letter, from the genealogy research company, concerning the third letter - apparently some other recipients of it had contacted them. To summarize it:

  • The author of the third letter was a beneficiary in his own right, and has received his own share of the estate.

  • He apparently believes that some individual is "entitled" to the entire estate, though there is nothing to support that claim.

  • He requested that the lawyers involved in the administration send a letter to that effect to all the other beneficiaries, but the lawyers refused, on the grounds that there was no basis for his opinion on what the settlement should have been.

  • He was not personally entitled to demand a full list of the beneficiaries' names and addresses, but he obtained a copy of it from someone (a private individual, not a lawyer!) who was legally entitled to that information.

The final paragraph was "We stress that you are under no obligation whatever to reply to this [i.e. the third] letter. You have received the correct entitlement due by law."

"Go jump in a lake", indeed!

And the cheque has now cleared.

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    This may be a first on this stack: a question posted under “scams” that turns out to NOT be a scam! – s3raph86 Nov 13 at 11:47
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    @TerryCarmen The TU official did have a will. He left everything to his wife. What he didn't do, apparently, was let his wife have anything to do with managing money while he was still alive, so when he was gone she was clueless. – alephzero Nov 13 at 16:41
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    @axsvl77 There are charges for writing a cheque that bounces because of insufficient funds. There is no charge for attempting to pay one in, unless you withdraw the money that you don't have and your account becomes overdrawn. – alephzero Nov 13 at 17:13
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    "So far as I'm concerned, she can go jump in a lake - I don't "do charity". She had 14 years to persuade Mary Smith to make the will she wanted, and failed - so that's not my problem!" - ah, you had me rooting for you right up until that statement. IMO it doesn't add anything to of value and comes across as just a little harsh. Just sayin' – Stephen Byrne 2 days ago
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    @vsz - indeed. I was only pointing out that imo this doesn't add anything to the answer. Personally I'm delighted for the OP and I hope this isn't a scam. But the OP doesn't know this "friend" and has - in my opinion - made a harsh judgement, by assuming that they are looking for this money in the first place. For all we know, the "other family member" who sent the letter is trying to get more for themselves...Don't know about you but I don't like the idea of a stranger wishing I would go jump in a lake, based on an assumption about my motives. but maybe that's just me :) – Stephen Byrne yesterday

I am skeptical too, but given the money involved, it may be worth a day's adventure to do some research.

Mail, email, phone, web can be faked. Offices can't.

You are right, there are a lot of "un-knowables" here based on your current level of research. That is because a postal letter, even one with a fine brochure, can be faked. A website where they give you the URL can be faked (the legit site can be cloned; they send you to the clone with the contact info altered.) Phone numbers can be set up for free by signing up for a Gmail account and activating Google Voice.

A "brick and mortar" office is much harder to fake. The first litmus test is you visit their office during business hours, and see if the place looks like a cheap throw-up, or if it has a sense of occupancy. If it's a multi-tenant building, ask the guard how long they've been there. If a standalone, take photos of their sign from the street, and fire up Google Maps and compare it to Street View (which is typically several years dated).

You can also phone up other attorneys in allied fields who are nearby, and ask them flat out of they've heard of that attorney. You might even have an interesting conversation with one. You can also contact the legal aid society. But I don't want you to overdepend on armchair research, nothing is a subsitute for visiting their office.

Walking in with a printout of whatever "they" sent you will be very enlightening. They'll either say "yeah, that's us" or "let me take a closer look at that!"

Another thing difficult to fake is a litigation record. While you're walking, swing by the nearest courthouse and search past cases for that attorney or firm, to see if they are actually active. Also search for anything about your family.

The contacts don't surprise me.

The first letter said she died without a will. That will involve a lengthy grinding through the default process for dispositioning her assets. The second letter said that they've found some of the money goes to you - that's the outcome of that lengthy grind, and the timing is believable.

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    Unfortunately offices can also be faked. I read recently about a scam in Lagos, and the scammer rented an office in the same building as the big bank the clearance was supposed to come from (even same entry). – lalala Nov 12 at 18:34
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    Offices can definitely be faked. The only reason we don't hear about that happening much these days is that email,phones and websites are sooo much easier and there are more than enough incautious people to go around all the scammers. – DRF Nov 12 at 19:50
  • "Phone numbers can be set up for free" - is that true for things that look like landline numbers (with a geographical area code) rather than cellphone numbers which are pretty "anonymous" anyway? AFAIK in the UK, to get a landline number you need a contract with an ISP which will most likely be for a minimum of 12 months line rental, and a physical address where the ISP can install it. – alephzero Nov 13 at 17:25
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    @alephzero In the United States, phone numbers look the same regardless of it being a landline or mobile connection. – UnhandledExcepSean Nov 13 at 18:46
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    Somewhat, the newest numbers use 0 or 1 in the middle digit of the exchange, which used to be reserved for area codes... So 347-416-0000 has both "new style" area code (means nothing) and "new style" exchange likely to be cellular. Some area codes are split, others are overlays and overlay area codes are likely to be mostly cellular. Regardless, now with phone number porting, there are no rules anymore. Also businesses are using more virtual numbers, where the number is no longer tied to a landline. Again with porting. And 800/888/855 toll free numbers are dirt cheap. – Harper Nov 13 at 18:52

I'm not sure how it is in the UK but in the US we have many laws around how unclaimed assets are handled for these types of situations. My company partners with another firm who makes an effort to locate owners or heirs of assets for a percentage of the assets. Typically they send a relatively non-descriptive letter that the person needs to sign which starts the process. The firm then handles the whole process of claiming/cashing in the assets for the owner/heir for a fee.

https://www.keaneunclaimedproperty.com/estate-research-and-recovery

Our Estate Research & Recovery services can:

Identify decedents and verify the proper heirs and beneficiaries of life insurance policy benefits

Search for rightful heirs of dormant bank accounts, certificates of deposit, safety deposit boxes, and additional banking properties

Locate lost investors and shareholders of public corporations and mutual funds

If you are able to figure out where the assets are held before signing the agreement with the firm you can typically avoid losing a percentage of the assets by going directly through the firm that has the assets.

  • This is indeed very similar to the pitch made in the genealogical company's brochure sent with their initial letter, and their web site. – alephzero Nov 9 at 21:15
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    It's a delicate line: too much information could mean you lose the commission, and too little information could make you look like a scammer. – Pete Becker Nov 10 at 12:12

The other answers give good advice. I would like to add this:

There is a kind of scam where a person is asked to handle money, which is later paid on to a third party or repaid. So far so good, but the twist is that the original receipt is bad (but took ages to finally fail), so in effect the person has paid out of their own pocket, believing the first payment is good, when it wasn't.

If this is a scam, the concern I'd have is that you bank the cheque, then get asked to repay it - perhaps it was paid to you "in error" or something, or they "discover" that half of it belonged to someone else. You repay as they ask, but later the original cheque later fails too. Scam.

It might not be that, but I would mainly protect yourself against that risk. So I would absolutely do what others have said - inform the bank, perhaps the police, check out/contact the law firm - but beyond all, I would not repay the money to the sender or anyone, or pay it on to any other person, or draw on it in any way, until you have it conformed in writing by the bank, that it has 100% cleared and funds have been received from the sender, with no possibility of the receipt being "unwound" at any future time.

In particular, if you do get a request (for any purported reason) to later repay it, forward it, or a claim of any error, that should be a huge red flag. Don't do any such payment/onward payment/repayment/transfer/whatever, without very careful checking with your bank and anyone else, first.

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    Don't do onwards/return payments ever, full stop. I believe the OP's case is likely legitimate Probate Research, but the only correct way to reverse a mistaken transaction, in all circumstances, is to have the sender contact the bank(s) and for them to contact you. You are very correct it's a "huge red flag", but no "careful checking" is needed, just don't do it. – Nathan Cooper Nov 13 at 13:03

In the UK, a cheque from a UK bank will clear after 6 working days. Once it's cleared, the sender can't get their money back (unless they can show you were part of a fraud). So pay it in to your UK bank account, and wait 2 weeks before you spend any of the money. If it clears, congratulations; if it doesn't then it was a scam.

Source: https://www.chequeandcredit.co.uk/information-hub/cheque-fraud-advice/protecting-bank-customers-cheque-fraud

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  • It might be worthwhile to contact the bank prior to deposit to confirm availability of funds. – axsvl77 Nov 13 at 16:39
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    This is now out of date. The UK cheque image clearance system will process a sterling cheque drawn on a UK bank within 48 hours, including the "fraud protection time". You don't even need to visit your bank to deposit the cheque, you can use the bank's app to take a picture of it with your phone and pay it in electronically. chequeandcredit.co.uk/press-release/… – alephzero Nov 13 at 16:51

If this were in the United States, my suggestion would be to go to your state Attorney General's office and ask them to review the following:

  1. Is the check a legitimate payout of the estate?
  2. Was money taken out of the payout before you received it and was that legitimate?
  3. Is the request to give money to the other relatives legitimate?

I do not know the equivalent office in the United Kingdom. You could quite likely find this out by calling the police on a non-emergency line and asking. In the US, it's the prosecutorial staff that would investigate at this level, not the police. It's more of a civil investigation than a criminal one.

Here's what I think happened. This lady died intestate (without a will) but with a large estate, at least a million British Pounds (GBP) (if you can get almost ten thousand as one of a hundred after a lawyer's commission, that suggests at least a million). The vultures descended. This included one or more law firms. The law firms proceeded to investigate possible heirs that they could represent. Once they had you lined up, they received a settlement, part of which they kept.

Probate records are public documents saying who represents who in terms of inheritance claims. So if you agreed to have these lawyers represent you and they did so, that's public information. That would then allow representatives of other heirs (real or fake) to contact you and ask you to give back the money.

Things that I might consider scams:

  1. The commission paid to the lawyers may be too high. I would consider this a scam, but the lawyers might be covered legally, as you agreed to their representation.
  2. Under no circumstances should you pay the lawyers or genealogy firm out of your share without further investigation. They should have collected the money and disbursed only your share to you.
  3. Was the share paid to you smaller than it should have been? What if the estate was fifteen million? Then your share was only about 10% of what it should have been, even after a 35% lawyer's commission. The lawyers made out like bandits, and the other heirs are getting a disproportionate share of the estate because you agreed to a small settlement.
  4. Paying the real or fake relatives for taking care of this lady in her later years seems a bit of a scam even if they're real. She was in a nursing home and had plenty of money. Presumably she was paying her way. What were they doing? Is the person who sent that letter actually turning money over to someone else? Or is the letter fraudulent?

Turn it over for investigation. You should not have to pay a lawyer at this point. It's possible that you may want to do so after the official investigation. It's not really necessary if all you want to do is cash the check. The primary purpose of a lawyer would be to argue that you should get more money. But the best time for that would have been before you agreed to let the other lawyers represent you.

It's also possible that there is an even bigger scam. Scammers see an intestate death. They send you a check that will ultimately bounce. They try to get you to send money to them or others. If that's it, then law enforcement should be notified as soon as possible. If the equivalent of a state attorney general starts asking about something, then that kind of scammer will just pack up and move on. They probably won't bother you again because you are dangerous and call law enforcement before they finish scamming you.

The greater worry is that it's all semi-legit. You signed away some of your rights already and the relatives have convinced themselves that they really deserve the entire inheritance. After all, they were nice to that miserable [expletive deleted] and she didn't even reward them with a nice will. Or worse, she did have a will -- that left everything to charity and has now disappeared.

Keep any correspondence from anyone. If someone sues you to recover part or all of the check you received, you may want to show it in court to explain why you didn't immediately pay that person.

I would call law enforcement first, but I don't see any reason why you shouldn't deposit the check. Presumably they will tell you to deposit but not spend the money (in case of fraud). They may want to do a cursory investigation first. If you do what law enforcement tells you, then you can't be accused of participating in a scam.

If there is a scam, the best time to report it is before they have collected the money. I.e. as soon as possible.

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    "You signed away some of your rights already" - well, don't forget the family motto of the Rothschild's, who did pretty well for themselves. It was, "always leave 10% for the other guy". So far as commission is concerned, "90% of a lot of money" is still "a lot of money." – alephzero Nov 12 at 19:04
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    If your bank charges you for depositing a bad check, that would be a reason not to deposit it. – Green Grasso Holm 2 days ago

I'm in the US, and a similar thing actually happened to me several years ago. In my case, it was "we've tracked you down as one of ~30 first and second cousins of Ms. XXX, who died intestate worth close to a million dollars." Sounded fishy as hell, especially as the initial contact was a phone call, and the guy absolutely sounded like the biggest huckster you can imagine. However, after nearly a year, I got a check for about $30K.

Makes you wonder how/why someone who owns multiple properties and has a large amount of money in the bank doesn't make a will... my estate isn't as large as hers was, but I know who it's going to when I die!

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  • But were you charged a "commission" for this money? – Green Grasso Holm 2 days ago

As far as I know, the costs of probating an estate and distributing its assets are payable out of the estate itself. At least, that's true in the United States, to the best of my understanding. In addition, anything that you are entitled to upon someone's death, you are entitled to. You don't have to grease someone's palm to get it. They can't hold it for ransom. They're already being paid by the executor for their services in disbursing the assets of the deceased.

I suspect that if you were to pursue this, they would insist on receiving their "commission" from you up front and, once you paid it, you would never hear from them again.

They might "deposit" funds into your account first and then ask you to send them their cut right away, only for the bank to discover over the next few days that the deposit was phony and debit the amount that had been tentatively credited to your account.

Or you might give them your bank's routing number and account number and then learn shortly afterwards that a substantial withdrawal (up to and including the entire balance) had been withdrawn without your knowledge.

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  • 1
    Welcome to the site. I think the downvote is because this is a US-centric answer on a UK-tagged question. – Nathan L 2 days ago
  • @NathanL, scams are scams worldwide, and the business of wanting a commission in advance, or after a "deposit" has been made, only for it to turn out after the commission has been paid that the bank has voided the deposit, has been going on since before the Internet was born. (I received my first "Nigerian prince" scam letter in snail mail in the mid-1980s.) – Green Grasso Holm 2 days ago
  • I would generally agree with your skepticism, but I don't have any certain knowledge of inheritance norms in the UK, so I don't know if it would be suspicious there. – Nathan L 2 days ago
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    In any case, welcome to the site. I hope you'll have other opportunities to contribute your experience. – Nathan L 2 days ago
  • The OP mentioned that they already have pursued it to the point of receiving a cheque, so much of this answer doesn't actually address the question. – Ganesh Sittampalam yesterday

If it's legitimate and your relative died without a will and the government couldn't find any heirs it would go to the government's "Unclaimed Funds" office, where anybody with a legitimate claim could go and get the money without paying a lawyer.

However this is almost certainly not the case. It's almost 100% certain that it's a scam.

What you have is a fake check. You'll deposit it, the "lawyer" will ask for their cut, you'll pay them, and then a few weeks later, the bank will discover that the check was forged and take back all their money. The money you sent the "lawyer", however, will be gone forever.

Another possibility is that the lawyer is asking you to commit fraud and claim that you're the sole heir, while there are actually hundreds of people with a claim to the money and you might not even be one of them.

Unless it's the first option where you contact your government's Unclaimed Funds Office and they send you a check, somehow you're about to get defrauded or commit fraud to benefit the "lawyer".

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