AN ‘HEIR hunters’ company preyed on bereaved relatives, charging more than £3 per minute and raiding their inheritance payouts, a court heard.
Beneficiaries Limited targeted three local siblings when their 93-year-old aunt died without leaving a will for her £240,000 estate, a jury was told.
Representatives from the business racked up bills of more than £15,000 pounds before they even contacted the family of Charlotte Cook after she died in a nursing home aged 93.
Gordon Menzies, prosecuting on behalf of West Berkshire Council, described how a team from the firm turned up, unannounced, at the homes of bereaved David Mitchell and his siblings Lesley Mitchell or Burghfield Common and Patricia Byrne of Tutts Clump.
As the aunt left no will and had no known family, her financial guardian - solicitor Colin Bell - contacted Beneficiaries Limited with a view to administering her £237,342 pounds estate, Reading Crown Court heard.
Mr Menzies said that, when the team visited the brother and sisters they refused to tell the heirs who had died or how much the estate was worth until they had signed away a 40 per cent share of any inheritance payout.
They were also encouraged to agree an y expenses in advance and told that, if they refused to sign, they would lose all entitlements, the judge was told.
Mr Menzies outlined the scenario to the court, saying: "It turned out that, as you were sitting there having this chat and deciding whether to sign this agreement, you were being charged. Each of those people sitting in your living room talking to you are charging you £100 pounds per hour."
Just meeting with the representatives was therefore costing the Mitchell siblings £3.33 pounds per minute, he said.
Other expenses including £250 pounds per person per night allowances for overnight stays.
Once the agreement was signed, Mr Menzies said, Beneficiaries Limited would sub-contract work to other firms which were also run by representative Alexander Pilley in a "highly artificial, very sophisticated and very cynical way of doing business."
Each of the siblings should have picked up more than £35,000 pounds in inheritance following their aunt's death - but they received little more than £10,700 pounds each, Mr Menzies added.
The company was not represented at the trial and nobody from the firm attended the hearing.
Beneficiaries Limited denied seven counts of fraud by false representation and three counts of misleading consumers by omission but a jury returned guilty verdict on all counts.
Pilley, of Northwood Road, Livingston, West Lothian, was ruled to be unfit to stand trial. He had also denied the same 10 counts.
Jurors were directed to acquit on one of the fraud counts but convicted him on the remaining counts that he had made the acts or omissions.
Beneficiaries Limited will be sentenced next month.
The case resulted from an investigation by the West Berkshire and Wokingham Trading Standards Service, following a complaint from a local resident.
The telephone number of Edinburgh-based heir hunting company World Wide Genealogy Ltd, formerly known as Beneficiaries Ltd , was unobtainable as the Newbury Weekly News went to press.