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millionaire died Where are the heirs?

Heir investigator Manuel Aicher talks about his professional practice: “You can compare it to a crime story”


August 1, 1992 was a big day for four distant family members in the state of Illinois. The reason: Everyone got a call from 'Europe. The Zurich heir investigator Manuel Aicher explained to the amazed Americans that they were relatives entitled to inherit from a dead multi-millionaire from the Rhineland. At first no one knew who was entitled to the inheritance of this woman. In such cases, detective research work is necessary to get to the address of the heirs. The 34-year-old Aicher conducts such research and offers his information internationally.

To die is to bequeath. The responsible district court appoints an administrator of the estate. If he has not found any heirs after two years, the probate court requests the heirs to come forward by means of a public tender. If they don't, the state inherits. But how should the beneficiaries find out about their happiness? The information gap between the official tender and unsuspecting heirs can often only be closed by the heir investigator.

"The industry is relatively unknown," says Aicher about his profession. Surprising, because the first agencies for heir investigators existed before · the turn of the century. Aicher: "You have to be able to work, think and speak internationally."

Four years ago, the native of Ulm would never have dreamed that he would one day officially call himself an heir investigator. Aicher learned different things before he was able to surprise the four Americans with the good news. After the first state examination in law, it was clear to him that law was too dry. He remembered a hobby from his youth: genealogical research in the local Allgäu village. "Sometimes it's almost like detective work." Aicher describes the genealogical research, which proceeds like a puzzle game.

Aicher explains that family research is about empathizing with the historical and social environment. He spent vacation days in vicarages, where he - initially with the help of his mother - deciphered old church books. "You need historical knowledge, knowledge of writing and all the historical auxiliary sciences," reports Aicher, and "a certain intuition" is also necessary. Genealogist Manuel Aicher also had that in 1991, when his research block fell from the ancestor to the descendant. Since then, “genealogy and heir investigation” have been on his list of offers as a freelancer.

For Aicher, the starting shots are either powers of attorney from administrators of the estate or announcements by the local court regarding the search for heirs. Aicher: "Then the race starts." Civil registry documents, church books, estate files, address and telephone books as well as emigration documents play a role as sources. Since authorities like to counter unwanted work with references to data protection, the heir investigator is happy to have the support of a Berlin employee, a Hamburg lawyer and an international network of correspondents. 

The detective principle applies: "You have to search, search, search." A place of particularly intensive investigations for Aicher is Berlin. There he often conducts investigations into cases that others have already given up as hopeless. He finds files in the 23 estates - and around 100 parish offices in Berlin.

"One of my main areas of research is East Germany," explains Aicher. Wars, division and the change in administrative systems are the reasons for the great need for investigations. No wonder that even West German companies are now Aicher's customers, for example when it comes to questions of ownership of building land for their industrial settlement.

With all these tasks, extreme thoroughness is part of the tools of the trade. Aicher: "Suppose someone has a nephew and you present the uncles instead, then of course it's hell." In addition, the loss of important documents occasionally means that the research remains without a result. So success is by no means guaranteed.

After all, the events are often related to family revelations. A woman finds out that she has a brother. Or the son does not want to inherit because he hates his father. The family historian has never met anyone who ultimately did not accept the inheritance. But the reactions are initially very different when the heir investigator calls.

Sometimes months of research are behind the message - even at night and overseas. "Basically, you can compare it to a crime thriller," explains Aicher, "if you already know the result, you'll find it boring how the inspector proceeded." And the investigators usually got on their trail without a single suspect. The heirs are the last link in a long chain. They often have no idea of the effort that was required to investigate them. Some even believe that it is a natural task of the state to inform them about their unexpected fortune. Of course, the investigators are satisfied when the work is done not with the gratitude of the lucky ones. The industry bills 15 to 33 percent of the inheritance as a kind of finder’s fee. Percentages are regulated. Only when this contract has been signed does the heir find out where the sum came from. The knowledge of the descendants is usually praiseworthy: "Without you we would never have gotten our money!"

Suzanne Lossau

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