Pensioner wins court battle with 'heir hunter' over his dead aunt's £600,000 fortune

A mislaid will led the hunter to set about tracing heirs in a bid to make a commission for himself


A Jewish pensioner has won a court battle with an ‘heir hunter’ who fought his rightful claim to his dead aunt’s home in a bid to profit from her £600,000 fortune.

Retired model Tessa Amstell left her north London house to her favourite nephew, Martin Amstell, 74, in a will made two years before her death aged 98 in 2011.

But the will was mislaid and not formally admitted to probate, bringing the apparently abandoned house to the attention of heir hunter Andrew Fraser.

Mr Fraser, who has featured on the BBC’s Heir Hunters show, believed that the Mrs Amstell — whose late husband, Billy, was a well-known jazz musician — may have died without making a will and set about tracing heirs in a bid to make a hefty commission for himself.

But despite then being told of the missing will, Mr Fraser ignored Mr Amstell’s claim, unearthed up to 30 distant relatives and tried to sell the house to pocket his £75,000 commission.

Taking control of Mrs Amstell’s estate “with gusto”, he changed the locks on her home, cleared it out, and ran up six-figure bills in a bid to “play the game and squeeze” her rightful heir. 

He even embarked on a hugely expensive 12-month “trawl” through medical records in a “pointless” attempt to prove that Mrs Amstell had lost the mental capacity to make a valid will, said Judge Nigel Gerald at the Central London County Court.

Even after he dropped the challenge to Mr Amstell’s inheritance, Mr Fraser went to court in a bid to get him and 22 animal charities also named in the will to pay his £134,000 heir-hunting costs.

But ordering him to pay the entire costs of the dispute — a total bill of over £250,000 — Judge Gerald said he had been “primarily focused on his financial gain”.

In taking over administration of the estate without telling anyone of Mr Amstell’s potential entitlement, Mr Fraser had been “materially misleading”, he added.

“The decision not to disclose the material was a conscious and deliberate decision, which was unjustified in the circumstances.

“Mr Fraser treated this as a commercial venture and… acted in a belligerent and provocative manner which appears to be intended to run up costs and bring pressure to bear on Mr Amstell to withdraw or settle the claim.

“There was a specific and deliberate intention to run this litigation as disproportionately, obstructively and expensively as possible,” said the judge.

Mrs Amstell and her husband, jazz musician Barnet “Billy” Amstell, married in 1938, having met at Pinewood Studios, where she was an aspiring actor and model.

However, they lost touch with many members of their family in their later years and lived out their final days at Bushey House Care Home, in north London.

Two years before her death in 2011, widowed Mrs Amstell made a will, naming her niece, Marion Finn, as executrix and nephew, Martin Amstell, as main beneficiary.

Under the terms of the document, she left her home in Ebrington Road, Kenton, to Mr Amstell, with another £122,000 in shares and savings to 22 animal charities.

Mrs Finn had long cared for the elderly couple, but did not immediately apply for a grant of probate of the final will, having mislaid the original. Instead, she continued to look after the house, clearing mail.

Mr Fraser, a partner in heir hunting firm Fraser & Fraser, learned of the seemingly abandoned house in 2016 when he was asked by Brent Council to investigate whether anyone was entitled to it.

He tracked down up to 30 distant family members who could benefit if Mrs Amstell had died without making a will and obtained a power of attorney from one of them, giving him the right to apply for administration of the estate.

He was named as the administrator in December 2016, despite being told repeatedly from July onwards by both Mrs Finn and Mr Amstell that there was in fact a will and she had not died intestate.

“Once appointed, Mr Fraser set about administering the estate with gusto,” said Judge Gerald.

“Not only did he attend with locksmiths to change the locks, but he also caused the contents of the bungalow to be cleared, it now being impossible to know whether or not the original will was in the contents cleared out.

“He also put the bungalow up for sale with such haste that it was to be auctioned on February 22, 2017.”

A copy of the will was finally found, but Mr Fraser only agreed to remove the house from the sale list days before the auction and after Mr Amstell had applied for a court injunction to force him to do so.

But instead of giving up and resigning as administrator of the estate, Mr Fraser then embarked on a one-year investigation into the circumstances surrounding the making of the will.

He only dropped his case when he “hoisted the white flag for commercial reasons” a year later, the judge said.

Mr Amstell’s Lawyer, Francesca Flood of Carter Lemon Camerons solicitors, said: “For many individuals, Mr Fraser’s bullying tactics would have succeeded and he would have walked away with their inheritance. Unfortunately for Mr Fraser he finally came across Mr Amstell.”

Also representing Mr Amstell, Dov Ohrenstein said Mr Fraser knew full well of Mr Amstell’s claim when he took over administration of the estate.

“From the outset there was a stubborn refusal to take Mr Amstell’s position seriously and Mr Fraser was determined to establish an intestacy,” he told Judge Gerald.

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