Heir determination

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An heir identification is the search for the relatives of a testator who, due to legal succession, could be the heirs of the deceased.

job profile

The working methods of the heir investigator correspond to those of the genealogist ; the research is made more difficult by events such as change of residence , name changes , flight and emigration , which often requires special knowledge: When did which people from which region emigrate to which place? Where can you find reliable information about the person you are looking for? Are there people who can provide information about the wanted heirs or their relatives? The profession can be learned autodidactically or at a company dealing with heir identification.

Heir investigators are commissioned ex officio by estate administrators, notaries and courts, or they become active themselves on the basis of a public announcement. Then they are paid on a success basis and bear the costs incurred themselves. In the event of a successful heir search, the remuneration is between 20% and 40% of the gross inheritance (before deduction of inheritance tax ) plus sales tax and expenses (certificates). The remuneration is to be paid from the net inheritance, which means that the percentages in relation to the net inheritance are significantly higher. Prepayment is not charged. The fee is only due after submission of all evidence of inheritance (certificates of inheritance, wills) when the estate is paid out, and usually only if the heirs make a fee agreement with the heir investigator.

The heirs can claim the corresponding costs from inheritance tax and thus reduce the inheritance tax to be paid.

Identification of heirs abroad

In particular, the waves of emigration from Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries still cause complicated research into inheritance cases. An example of this are siblings who have emigrated in the case of an elderly person who has died without children. The search for relatives entitled to inheritance often has to be carried out on different continents. The shifting of borders in Europe after the end of the war in 1945 also had a decisive impact on the work of the heir investigator.

In principle, the inheritance law at the last known place of residence of the deceased applies to the determination of heirs. However, foreigners can stipulate in their will that the inheritance law of their home country is to be applied.

Legal position


According to § 1960 BGB , the duty of investigation is incumbent on the probate court or the curator appointed by the probate court . In Bavaria it is ex officio the task of the probate court to determine the heirs if there is an inheritance that exceeds the burial costs.

In cases where there are no difficult circumstances, the involvement of a commercial heir determination is initially not permitted, even if heirs are determined in the 3rd order by an estate administrator. Rather, the curator of the estate must identify the heirs himself and may only call in a commercial heir investigator if he has done everything that is reasonable for him. However, heir investigation companies have been around since 1849 and thus longer than the BGB (since 1900).

After a successful heir determination , the succession is proven to the probate court and the heirs can apply for a certificate of inheritance . If no legal heirs can be determined, the entire estate usually goes to the tax authorities ( state inheritance law ). If the estate consists solely of cash assets and at most smaller, material assets that can be deposited (e.g. jewelry ), the estate is initially deposited with the courts.

If the succession is not fully proven in a certificate of inheritance application, the probate court can search for further heirs by means of a public request according to § 352d FamFG . If these initially unknown parties do not report their inheritance rights to the probate court within a statutory minimum period of six weeks after publication, their rights are initially disregarded in the ongoing proceedings and a certificate of inheritance can be issued without showing their inheritance rights. If the inheritance has passed to the community, heirs, if they have still been identified, have a claim for repayment within 30 years.

A commercial heir investigator is only entitled to remuneration if he has concluded a corresponding contract with the respective heir. The motive for an heir to conclude such an agreement is that, without the commercial heir investigator, he is in many cases unable to identify the person of the testator himself. If, on the other hand, the heir can find out the testator himself, he usually has no interest in concluding such a contract, as the remuneration significantly reduces his share of the inheritance.


In Switzerland, Article 555 of the Civil Code regulates the situation with unknown heirs. If the heirs are completely or partially unknown, public calls are used to search for them. If no heirs are found within one year, the inheritance goes to the canton or municipality in which the deceased had his last place of residence (Section 466 of the Civil Code). However, if an inheritance is found within ten years, there is a claim for repayment against the municipality or the state.

In Switzerland, the determination of the heir is a matter for the inheritance office. Heir investigators are either commissioned by the inheritance office and receive an hourly rate for their work, or they work on a private basis with a success fee. In the case of the painter widow Nina Kandinsky, who was murdered in 1980, an heir investigator was hired.

In contrast to Germany, in Switzerland the inheritance ends with the tribe of the grandparents (and their descendants). This limits the investigator's effort.

Other countries

The death without a will is referred to as intestate death in English and mort intestat in French .

United States

Inheritance law varies from state to state, despite the Uniform Probate Code , which has only been ratified in 16 states; many other states have partially adopted the UPC in their legislation.

According to the UPC, in the case of unmarried, childless deceased, the tribe of grandparents (and their descendants) is the most distant tribe of the family with inheritance rights. If no inheritance is found, the inheritance goes to the state government in all cases. In Texas , for example, heirs can claim inheritance for four years.

The identification of heirs in the USA presents greater challenges than elsewhere: There are no population registers for residents of the USA as in Europe; only holders of a driving license have to report a change of residence to an authority within a short period of time. That is why census data and US immigration data are important alternatives.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the grandparent tribe is the most distant in inheritance in the case of the childless, unmarried deceased.


  • Holger Siebert : Identifying heirs as a task for legal clerks, estate administrators and heir investigators published in ZEV 2019, 688 ff.
  • Nachlasspflegschaft , editor Holger Siebert (formerly Jochum / Pohl) Reguvis Verlag , Cologne 2020, ISBN 978-3-8462-1083-3

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Job profile heir investigator . Association of German Heir Investigators (VDEE®) eV. Retrieved October 14, 2016.
  2. z. B. § 86ff. in the Swiss federal law on international private law (IPRG).
  3. "The probate court has to determine the heirs ex officio" ( Art. 37 Paragraph 1 Sentence 1 AGGVG ; also § 41 Paragraph 1 Sentence 1 LFGG in Baden-Württemberg until 2015, on this Ruby : Courts no longer determine heirs ).
  4. Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court , decision of March 5, 2014, Az. I-3 Wx 192/13, full text .
  5. BGH , judgment of September 23, 1999, Az. III ZR 322/98, full text .
  6. ^ Daniel Weber: Reverse Bounty Hunter , in: NZZ Folio , November 2003