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Spain’s inheritance bounty hunters

Coutot Roehring specializes in tracking down heirs to unclaimed fortunes across the globe

Around 40 percent of Spaniards fail to write out a will.
Around 40 percent of Spaniards fail to write out a will.

A couple of months ago, a 90-year-old pensioner living in a working-class suburb of Madrid received a phone call that sounded too good to be true.

On the other end of the line was Victorio Heredero, an employee of Coutot Roehrig (C&R), a European company specializing in inheritance research, telling the retiree that he had just inherited an apartment worth €700,000 in the capital’s upmarket Salamanca neighborhood.

Heredero told his astonished listener a story about an illegitimate child abandoned by the daughter of an illustrious family in the early years of the 20th century and placed in a children’s home. The boy grew up never knowing who he was. After he left the children’s home, he was sent out to work as a laborer in the tough years following the Spanish Civil War.

Cases can be complex, with the speediest ones taking around six months but others stretching over several years

The old man recognized the story as his own: C&R had traced him after discovering he was entitled to part of a large and unclaimed inheritance.

C&R’s motives in contacting the elderly man were simple: it specializes in finding the heirs of intestate assets, in return for a commission.

Heredero explains the process that led him to trace the nonagenarian heir: “I’m a historian, a specialist in genealogy. We look at historical records, schools, military service, religious institutions… We also check public records for information about births, deaths, marriages or stays at children’s homes.”

Marco Lamberti, an elegantly dressed Italian, runs C&R’s Spanish division. He says that every year, around €100 million goes unclaimed after the owners pass away without leaving a last will behind.

Around 40 percent of Spaniards fail to draw up a testament, meaning that if their legal heirs cannot be found, their assets go to the State. In the case of Spain, that amounts to approximately €83 million over the last decade.

Not competing with the state

“We see ourselves as helping heirs claim what is rightfully theirs,” says Lamberti, pointing out that the company only undertakes searches for people at the request of notaries or law firms, and only takes a commission in the event that an heir decides to accept an inheritance. While he declined to specify the commission, other sources said it is probably around 20 percent.

The first thing the company does when contacted by a law firm over an unclaimed inheritance is to work out how much money is due to somebody once all death duties and liabilities are paid off. The firm prepares a contract listing the assets or monies due, which heirs must agree to before proceeding any further. If they refuse, they risk never knowing who their benefactor is, as well as being denied the inheritance.

C&R specializes in finding the heirs of intestate assets, in return for a commission

Cases can be complex, with the speediest ones taking around six months but others stretching over several years, says Lamberti. The company employs lawyers, historians and genealogists such as Victorio Heredero, whose  job is to build a picture of the heir's life, which often involves tracing people who might have migrated to Latin America or Germany in the 20th century.

The company has around 400 cases open at any given time.

Lamberti says the most delicate part of the operation is the first contact with a possible heir. “When you tell somebody they might have inherited money or property from somebody they probably never even heard of, they tend not to believe you, they are very cautious. Having said that, we end up reaching agreements with around 95 percent of people."

Legal backlog

At the same time, he says that Spain’s overburdened judicial system slows down the process of sorting out intestate legacies, but that new legislation aims to make it easier for notaries to play a bigger role in tracking down possible heirs by taking on functions previously left to judges.

When they receive a testament, notaries are obliged to contact all possible heirs, which traditionally has been done through Spain’s Official State Bulletin (BOE), the gazette that records all official legislation and decrees. The problem is that very few people outside government actually read the BOE, which is where C&R comes into the picture.

C&R tracks the family tree of deceased people who did not leave a written will.
C&R tracks the family tree of deceased people who did not leave a written will.

Spanish law allows relatives with up to fourth-degree kinship to inherit intestate estates (great-great grandchildren, first cousins, as well as great-great grandparents), but as Lamberti points out, in many cases the legal heirs are never established.

“Our main job is to provide a search service for law firms, notaries or real estate management companies,” he says, adding that the average heir is around 75 years old.

Three decades ago, EL PAÍS ran a story about two elderly sisters who inherited the equivalent of €600,000 after they were located through an ad in the press. They were unaware that they had an uncle who had emigrated to France in the early 20th century and who died leaving no heirs.

C&R looked into the family records until they found his great nieces living in Valencia. Newspaper reports from the time talked about a 25 percent fee for the company. The story had a happy ending. And in many cases, the recipients of inheritances are past retirement age, which means that the real beneficiaries are usually their own children and grandchildren.