Until the recent publicity afforded by television shows on the subject, many people might not have realised that ‘heir tracing’ companies exist, let alone that they research ‘promising’ estates by looking at public records and then contact potential beneficiaries of those estates.

The prospect of obtaining a windfall following a knock on the door by such a firm makes many people only too glad to sign the contract offered, but quite often these can involve very considerable sums being paid to the heir locators – a figure of 25 per cent of the inheritance is not uncommon.

It is often the case that your entitlement to an unexpected legacy can be achieved more economically. Many such approaches result from the firm researching into the background of substantial unclaimed estates and much of the work that is done can be done by an ‘amateur’ (especially one with an interest in genealogy) without great expense.

Here are some things to think about if you are approached by such a firm. Often, the details they give you will be scanty and will not include the likely value of the inheritance. The withholding of critical information in order to make you sign the contract may make their agreement with you unenforceable.

Firstly, try to establish who the deceased is, your relationship to them and the value of the estate. The latter can normally be found with a little research, as wills are public documents. The more distantly related to them you are and the more other possible beneficiaries, the less you are likely to receive.

Do not rush! If the visit arises because of an unclaimed estate, the estate will not pass irrevocably to the Crown until 30 years after the death of the testator, so there is plenty of time. The Treasury Solicitor’s website contains details of unclaimed estates, which is a good starting place for your research.

If the approach arises through a solicitor, always ask the name of the solicitor.