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Inherited a fortune and you know nothing about it? If you're lucky, a heir investigator will track you down.

By Daniel Weber


If someone dies in Switzerland and it is not clear who the heirs are, the law dictates that a search be made for them. In the canton of Zurich, the district court becomes active, in most other cantons the notary's office is responsible for this. In difficult cases - especially if they lead abroad - the public notary's office can fall back on the services of a specialized heir investigator. The only professional heir researcher in German-speaking Switzerland is Manuel Aicher, head of the Swiss Central Office for Genealogy and owner of an office for heir research and family history research in Dietikon and Berlin. Every year he tackles around a dozen investigations, some cases occupy him for years. 


Mr. Aicher, how do you become a heir investigator?

There are actually only autodidacts. My entry point was family history research. As a teenager I started this as a hobby and researched my ancestors. Later I carried out assignments for people who were interested in their family background. When a colleague once asked me to help him find an heir, I realized that it doesn't take much more knowledge than I had acquired for genealogy. And since I'm a lawyer, I can also handle the inheritance procedures. That's how I started my own business.


What was your first case about?

About a man who died childless in Berlin and was born in Poland. At his place of birth we found documents about his relatives and found heirs.


Was that a big legacy?

She was in the middle. The smallest amount I researched was 6,000 francs. If I research at my own risk and expense, I start at around 30,000 francs. Most of my cases are between 100,000 and 200,000 francs.


How much of it do you get?

If an inheritance court hires me, I get my hourly rate, no matter how large the estate is. If I work at my own risk and find heirs, I make a commission contract with them. I ask for a flat rate of around twenty percent of the total. That is the usual approach, at least in German-speaking countries. In the US they charge up to fifty percent, but I wouldn't have a good feeling about that anymore, I find that inappropriate. 


How do you choose your cases?

Heir appeals are published in the official gazettes. Of course, I'm particularly interested in the exciting cantons where mainly people from abroad move to spend their old age: Ticino, Vaud, Zurich, Zug.


Do the tenders mention the sums?

If it is not mentioned, you have to see if you can get it. Until now, the tax data was free, but now you can have it blocked. If they're free, I'll get a tax ID. The last taxed assets then give me the size of the inheritance.


And how do you proceed?

If the deceased had Swiss citizenship, the family certificate is the starting point. In Switzerland we have inheritance law that is divided into three levels: First come the wife and children, then parents and siblings, and lastly grandparents and their descendants. Since each closer order of inheritance excludes the more distant one, one must work through them one after the other.


That doesn't sound too difficult.

It isn't. Finding the whereabouts of an heir can be more difficult. The family certificates only contain the personal details, not the place of residence. And often you have family records that don't record a person's death. Within Switzerland, a death is reported to the Bürgerort, but that stops at the border. I had a case where a man was born in Switzerland and died on the other side of Lake Geneva, in Evian. He was still alive in the civil register because the French authorities did not report it.


What are your other sources?

Register of residents, registration of residents, address books, obituaries in newspapers. In Switzerland we have a very good registration system with the unique Bürgerort. Abroad, on the other hand, every civil status case is notarized where it took place. For example, my birth certificate is in Ulm an der Donau, my parents' marriage certificate too, but their birth certificate is somewhere else. And they died somewhere else. You have to combine and also evaluate historical sources. In Germany, there is no inheritance restriction to grandparents. I have cases where the common ancestors were born around 1750. But I not only have to find heirs, I also have to prove their inheritance rights, so I have to rely on official documents.


What do you do when investigating internationally?

I use databases that I have set up myself or that are accessible via the Internet. Let's take the example of a Jewish family that lived in Zurich. The father was born in Odessa, the mother in Moscow. The deceased had only one child who had previously died. So we had to keep looking at the grandparents. Because the family had a rare name, I trawled through international phone books and found an old woman in Bologna. The family and relatives who were scattered all over the world knew her: Russia, Paris, Vienna, USA - but none of them were entitled to inherit. Of course, it was important to search the birth registers in Odessa and Moscow. My colleague in Moscow did that. And in the case of Jewish families, one should always check whether there are relatives in Israel. I have freelancers everywhere that I can send out. Personally, I'm more at my desk and coordinate.


How do you proceed if a case leads to the USA, where there is no obligation to report?

An important source are the passenger lists of the emigrant ships. You also need some historical knowledge, you have to be familiar with the waves of emigration. I recently had a case from Pomerania, in what is now Poland, where a family member, a man born in 1865, simply disappeared. I found it in the passenger lists. And in the US, there was a federal census every ten years. Two of these censuses, those from 1920 and 1930, are available on the Internet. I found the Pole who had emigrated in the 1920 census, with his six-month-old daughter. I then looked for that. The US is like a patchwork quilt. One state has death records from 1950 to 1980, another state has marriage records for a few years. Another important source is Social Security. When someone dies, their vital records are made publicly available in the Social Security Death Index. there is a little something everywhere. In the end, I often look for a colleague on site who can then talk to neighbors or to people who take care of the grave in the cemetery.


So there is no standardized procedure?

Yesterday I was officially commissioned to search for heirs. In the probate file was a postcard addressed to the deceased's father, apparently from his brother. This trail led me to a relative who was still alive. The whole investigation was done with two or three phone calls. But that's a stroke of luck. Usually I have to be able to see the person in front of me: the name, the religion, the circumstances, the history of the place, the region.


Do you imagine biographies?

I've been in this job for twenty years, so over time you'll get a certain intuition. And I'm pretty persistent on my cases. I am currently completing one that I started ten years ago.


Isn't it long expired?

If no heirs are found, the inheritance falls to the community. But then there is still a period in which you can claim it back. In Switzerland it's ten years, in Germany thirty.


What is your success rate?

In Germany, where you can almost go back to Adam and Eve, you can usually still find someone. That's around 80 to 90 percent. In Switzerland, with its socialist inheritance law, it is deeper.



Switzerland has the same inheritance law as the GDR, according to which legal heirs only go back to the grandparents. There are often families without living descendants of the grandparents. In Germany you can also look for descendants in the lineage of the great-grandparents - or even further back.


Does this make sense?

Politically, I think Switzerland's limited inheritance law makes more sense. Why should one look for distant relatives who had nothing to do with the deceased? The community should rather get the inheritance. That in itself is a socialist attitude. If Germany had taken over the GDR inheritance law after reunification, that would have brought some money into the state's coffers.


You are arguing against your interests.

Of course, but as long as the law is like that, I move within the framework of this law and try to help those who are entitled to it. Politically, I think an inheritance law where I can theoretically find common ancestors in the Middle Ages is nonsense. 


They're sort of a reverse bounty hunter. What is the greatest appeal of your work?

I enjoy combining, tinkering, searching for clues. Putting together individual pieces of the mosaic until I finally have an overall picture appeals to me. I can clarify.


Do you feel like a benefactor?

I see it more soberly. There are of course cases in which I am happy when someone gets something because they really need it. People who live as poor people, mostly in the former GDR, have a tiny pension, barely enough coal for heating.


In the US, a heir investigator found a man living under a new name in an FBI witness protection program. Have you also experienced such stories?

A curious case was when I looked for and found a man, but on the phone he answered as a woman. This was a transsexual who was in the process of transition. In order to process the inheritance, I had to obtain a new birth certificate in which the man was registered as a woman.


What was your biggest case?

That of ina Kandinsky, the painter's widow, who was strangled in 1980 at the age of 84 in her chalet in Gstaad. Her husband had died long before her, and they had no children. She was a French citizen and officially lived in Neuilly-sur-Seine near Paris. A consortium of investigators I was part of did extensive research around the world. It was about twenty million francs. Nina Kandinsky was from a relatively low Russian nobility. She had a brother, we couldn't find him. The question then was: did the parents have any siblings? Heirs from Paris were found in the maternal line, and after 1917 many Russian noble families emigrated to Paris. We searched on my father's side and found people who claimed they were related, but we couldn't prove it to anyone. The paternal half of the inheritance then probably fell to the French state. 


Does every heir investigator dream of the big fish?

Of course you always hope to come across one, but in the end it's the crowd that counts. Once I had the case of a tramp in Zurich. He always went around with his little shopping cart, a classic clochard. And when he died, there were 400,000 francs. He was born in Berlin and probably fled to Switzerland as a young man in the thirties because he wanted to avoid conscription. I actually did find his heirs in the Berlin area.


Daniel Weber is Editor-in-Chief of NZZ-Folio.

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