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Property seeks owners

Never before has so much wealth been inherited in Germany as it is today. Thanks to professional heir investigators, it hits some people out of the blue.


If the Federal Republic of Germany had taken over the GDR's inheritance law upon reunification, it would be in a much better position financially today, perhaps as good as Switzerland, which at least practices the socialist variant when it comes to inheritance law.

Such thoughts come to mind in Dietikon near Zurich, where four people are sitting on gymnastic balls in front of their screens on the third floor of an inconspicuous apartment building. One has her eyes glued to microfilms of old church registers, another, a trained Germanist, glues family trees together into broad banners. The boss is on the phone with an 87-year-old lady in a retirement home somewhere in East Germany. "What was the name of your sister's husband?" he wants to know, "and do you also know when he died? ... Did they have children? ... Oh, he had a doctorate? Do you happen to know where he lives today ?"

At the same time, he enters the doctor's name at, but finds no entry. "No, we're still investigating, but we'll get back to you, thanks for your help, goodbye." In three days, three weeks, three months he might call again and tell the old lady that she can inherit 270,000 euros.

On the third floor of the inconspicuous apartment building in Dietikon, it's about values without owners, it's about the dead and about finding at least one legitimate heir. Because the man on the phone doesn't get a cent or a cent, but the state gets everything. 

Manuel Aicher, 44, is a heir investigator. Even as a teenager he discovered family history research for himself. Aicher is the son of the well-known designer Otl Aicher and the writer lnge Aicher-Scholl and a nephew of the siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl, who were executed in 1943 as resistance fighters of the "White Rose". Aicher wanted to know who they were, what family background they had. He began to draw family trees and then accepted commissions from people who, like him, wanted to shed light on their family background. So he came to find out heirs 20 years ago because the legal profession did not fulfill him. In Berlin he once found eight heirs of a stateless homeless man who had fled from Germany to Switzerland in the 1930s to avoid compulsory military service and who, with his shopping trolley, had become a well-known citizen of Zurich. He left his surprised relatives 400,000 Swiss francs. Aicher procured a few thousand euros for a transsexual whom he had been looking for as a man and found as a woman.

The best cases are those in which people who have little are grateful for a few thousand euros. Like that old lady in Dresden who lives with her husband on a pension of 800 euros and has to postpone an operation again and again because the health insurance company does not want to pay. Aicher has now located her as one of four heirs to a small property near Berlin, which is likely to be worth around 60,000 euros. "She keeps calling me, but I have to reassure her that it may be months before she really has the money in her account," says Aicher.

Anyone can become a heir investigator. Like journalist or detective or writer. You don't need a degree or formal training, just a trade license. And the money is - at first glance - more or less on the street: The German Institute for Old-Age Provision has calculated that around 15 million German households will inherit assets of around two trillion euros in this decade, i.e. 200 billion euros per year, so more than ever before in the history of the Federal Republic. Only in about 30 percent of inheritance cases does a will determine who is to receive the assets; in all other cases, the succession of the Civil Code applies, which divides the heirs into orders: next to the spouse of the deceased, there are his children and grandchildren; in second order come the parents of the deceased, his siblings, nieces and nephews, then the grandparents and their descendants, and so on.

So far, so legal. But what if no one knows the rightful heirs and they themselves do not know about the death of the relative?

More inheritances, fewer heirs

There are many indications that this will be the case more and more often in the future - because the number of single households and patchwork families is increasing, as is life expectancy and older people moving into homes. The dissolution of family ties is likely to bring new customers to the heir investigators for the foreseeable future. In any case, Manuel Aicher is no longer surprised when, during his research, he comes across people who don't know whether, let alone where, their siblings, their parents, their children live.

At the beginning of his work there is usually a dry text in an official publication like the one in the Federal Gazette, which is now on the table in front of him: “Pirna district court, public request. Hans-Werner Böhm, born on March 18, 1931 in Ammendorf, now Halle (Saale) died on January 23, 2003. (...) His half-sister(...) is a legal co-heiress to a quarter. In the place of a predeceased heir, his descendants step in. The legal heirs in question want to report to the probate court in Pirna within six weeks of publication, giving a detailed description of the relationship. (...) The pro rata net inheritance should amount to around EUR 700.00 Pirna, 29.09. 2004."

Courts or notaries' offices often get stuck in determining heirs or shy away from the effort. With an estate of 700 euros, this also applies to Aicher, because "that sum is already used up by the notification". A case becomes interesting for him from around 30,000 euros. Then he gets a power of attorney from the estate administrator or the court to determine the heirs But the larger the estate, the more likely it is that other investigators will also be on the trail of the heirs.

Investigations up to the year 1750

Aicher cantons such as Ticino, Zug or Bern are interesting for heir investigators, where many rich and elderly foreigners spend their old age for tax reasons. Like Nina Kandinsky, who was found strangled many years ago in her house in the posh town of Gstaad and left behind around 20 million francs. Her husband, the famous painter, was dead and they had no children. A consortium of investigators, to which Aicher belonged, tracked down the relatives of the French citizen from the Russian nobility. The researchers did not find Nina Kandinsky's brother, but her mother's relatives, who also received their share of the inheritance, did; However, no one from the father's line reported who could prove the relationship. "The paternal half of the inheritance went to the French state," Aicher recalls.

This kind of thing happens relatively often in Switzerland, because there, as in the GDR, the legal succession only extends to the descendants of the grandparents. Whose line meets that of the deceased in an earlier generation has no claim: the inheritance goes to the state. "In Germany, on the other hand, I can theoretically go back to Adam and Eve to find a legal heir," says Aicher, who researched back to 1750. Similar to citizenship, where the focus of life or the language is not about being German rather than descent from German ancestors, German inheritance law attaches private property to the blood of the clan, no matter how scattered and divided that may be.

It is therefore economically sensible for Aicher to concentrate on the market for German inheritances. In Berlin he has an office with one permanent employee and several freelancers. Thanks to endless succession, his success rate in Germany is 80 to 90 percent, while in Switzerland it is inevitably lower.

As a private individual who thinks politically, he considers the unlimited inheritance to be "nonsense": it leads to social imbalances in the long term. "It doesn't make sense that in a city like Berlin the outdoor pools no longer open in the summer because the coffers are empty, while at the same time inheritances are being paid out to people who have the same great-great-great-great-great-grandfather as the deceased have." A few years ago, Aicher gave heirs a property whose owner had died in 1945. "In such a case, it would be more sensible to pay the heirs a certain amount of compensation and give the majority of the proceeds from the sale to the community." , says Aicher.

Foreign Legion personal data may be helpful

Because that's not the case, he's busy. A family tree with dozens of boxes lights up on his monitor, under one is "Deceased", under the others only question marks. Aicher is on the phone again, always asking the same questions: "When did X die?", "Where does Y live?", "Did XY have children?" If he gets answers, he enters the data in the boxes: date of birth, place of birth, religion, status, husband or wife and their biographical data, place and date of marriage, date of death and place of death. Heir investigators must be file eaters and pedants. A wrong name of a village in East Pomerania or Macedonia, a Schmid without a t, a Kaspar with a C, a Catholic who is accidentally made a Reformed - and the trail leads to a dead end where the investigator gets lost, maybe without it ever to remember.

Even complete family trees are initially not worth very much because they say nothing about where the heirs live. The family certificates only contain the personal details, not the place of residence. Aicher: «I had the case of a man who was born in Switzerland but died on the other side of Lake Geneva. He was still alive in the civil register because the French authorities had not reported it." Heir investigators therefore rummage through population registers, address books and obituaries in old newspapers, they write to church archives, fax to registry offices, they leaf through international telephone directories and local encyclopedias, they rummage through passenger lists of emigrant ships, US American census lists and historical maps, birth and birth records marriage registers or the US Social Security Death Index. If they want to be successful, they have to be able to read the old German script and be familiar with the archives of the pre-war period, they should know about the escape routes of Jews in the Third Reich and about the expulsion streams in Eastern Europe. Sometimes it can also be helpful to have access to the personal data of the Foreign Legion.

"It's a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, the parts of which are often scattered all over the world," says Aicher. And: It's a jigsaw puzzle of which no one knows which parts even exist. Sometimes freelancers, a private detective or a foreign colleague find what they're looking for Another piece of the puzzle somewhere in the world when they question neighbors or get a gravedigger to talk in a cemetery, but sometimes that's just a worthless piece of the fringe that doesn't help to see the whole picture, and that's what the courts ask for before they issue a certificate of inheritance: the complete picture, the complete proof, documented by officially certified birth, marriage and death certificates.

Aicher had cases in which a postcard was found in the estate file, which led him to the sole heir in two or three phone calls. And he had cases that kept him busy for five, eight, ten years and then just got lost. "You never know where the case will lead you, it's a gamble," says Aicher, who, like his colleagues, works at his own financial risk, always prepared not to meet an heir. Or four dozen, one of whom is himself and blocked the inheritance - and thus also Aicher's fee - for years.

That explains why heir investigators have to be penny pinchers who find out as much as possible over the phone, by letter or over the Internet and never board a plane. Budapest, Odessa, Bologna, Paris, Memphis, Tel Aviv - the big wide world gets lost in dusty files and coffee stains on the computer keyboard when investigating heirs. The all-important, really exciting moment comes - if at all - at the very last moment, when the heir investigator appears in front of the surprised heirs with the evidence he has collected. That means: he leaves the documents in the office, instead he tries to make the heirs believe that only he can make them heirs. Because heir investigators have no legal right to a fee - they initially investigate without being commissioned by the future heir - they have to feed potential customers, so to speak: The heirs receive just enough information that they sign the fee contract - Aicher usually demands 20 percent of the estate value - but never so many that they could identify the deceased on their own.

The competition never sleeps

"I had to learn the hard way," Aicher remembers one of his first cases, in which the heirs thanked him for the helpful information and sent Aicher home without a contract - it was about several single-family houses in Berlin. Not to mention the competition: it can happen that the heirs have rung the bell a few days earlier, or they show up later, but with heirs of a lower rank.

Heir research is a highly speculative business. 80 percent of Aicher's annual turnover depends on three or four cases out of about a dozen that he handles per year. This explains why, despite the wave of inheritances in Germany, only about 20 heir investigators are on the road and Manuel Aicher is the only one in German-speaking Switzerland. Incidentally, the industry does not enjoy the best reputation among some: they are said to be trespassers who, with their exclusive knowledge of family relationships, blackmailed the heirs into paying excessive commissions. On the other hand, the 20 to 30 percent that is usual in Germany is well below the 50 percent that some heir investigators in the USA treat themselves to, and is downright modest compared to what the state does without

would take the investigator - namely everything.

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