The House Detectives

Colin Ashley is a solicitor specialising in the affairs
of older people and is the principal of A H Sutcliffe and Co of
Rochdale. He is a partner in the Platinum Training Partnership
providing training in older people issues for social workers and
care homes and in solution-focused techniques.

Edmund Trebus was a maddening but engaging character featured in
the BBC1 TV series A Life of Grime who lived in a house full with
rat-infested rubbish. For many social services staff, Trebus and
his house would have been an extreme example of the situations they
sometimes have to deal with when service users go into residential
care or have died and there are no relatives willing, able and
entitled to undertake responsibility for the user’s affairs.

Even in the cleanest houses this can be stressful since you are
conscious of intruding into the occupier’s most intimate secrets.
So, what are the issues in carrying out a search?

The first priority is to have regard for one’s own well-being. A
searcher should ensure that they are equipped with protective
gloves and protective clothing. Never plunge your hands into
anywhere you cannot see. This avoids finding objectionable material
and anything positively dangerous such as knives or needles.

The second priority must be to protect oneself against allegations
of dishonesty; so carrying out a search alone is highly
inadvisable. Using a digital camera to take extensive photographs
in and around the house is a wise move. Photographs may help
counter any allegations and may support an insurance claim where an
unoccupied house is subsequently burgled or damaged.

The discovery of cash, debit or credit cards should be considered
with care. If not needed the sooner they are destroyed the better
thus reducing the risk of their use fraudulently after death or to
assist in financial abuse during life.

Some older people, for various reasons, still resort to keeping
large sums of money in the house particularly as their mental
health difficulties increase. The more unlikely the place the more
likely the stash. I have found £3,000 in cash in a “pinny”
inside a plastic bag wrapped in a tea towel on a kitchen table;
£17,000 as a “brick” in a biscuit tin; and even on one
occasion in an old pair of corsets with a “secret” pocket. Cash
stuck behind wallpaper is not unknown.

From the point of view of administering someone else’s affairs,
whether during lifetime or in death, it is documents that are most
important. Once you’ve eliminated the possibility of a safe, the
next thing to look for is a tin box or a small suitcase. Everyday
documents such as pension books will often be found close to where
the user normally sits.

Probably the single most important document to be located is a
will. Many people still unwisely attempt writing their own wills
and keep them in the house. Even professionally drawn wills may be
found in the house. Nowhere can be ignored. In one recent case I
found a homemade will sticking out from a pile of old

Keep an eye out for bills from solicitors that might identify a
firm with which the service user has been connected. The same goes
for banks where not only a will may be deposited but also deeds or
investment securities or valuables.

Property deeds too are important. Again, many people still keep
their deeds at home. If the deeds are not in the house or at the
bank or solicitors then they may have been left at a building
society even if the mortgage has been paid off. Evidence of a past
mortgage or of continued insurance of the property by a lender
should be preserved.

A watch should also be kept for birth, adoption, baptismal,
marriage, divorce and death certificates and grants of
Searchers should be prepared to imagine the unimaginable and
discount no document, however apparently insignificant. By way of
example, some years ago staff at one social services department
found a baptismal certificate of a little girl dating back 60 years
among the papers of a woman who had died. No other evidence of that
child having existed was found; neighbours had no recollection of a
child. As a result of the dedication of the social services
administrator it was established that she was in a hostel for
homeless people 250 miles away. She had been totally estranged from
her parents and family at least 45 years before in circumstances
still unknown. She and her inheritance were reunited.

A searcher should be seeking any evidence of bank or building
society accounts and other investments, always having in mind that
some shareholdings now may have no actual share certificate.
Nothing should be discounted even if it appears that the account
has been closed or the investment cashed. In a recent case the
evidence was that the deceased had closed an account. Investigation
disclosed that the account was very much open with a balance of

Gathering this information is not only relevant following a death
but also in cases where the user is alive and an application may be
necessary to the Court of Protection, or to assess whether the user
will be self-funding in residential care. Service users’ assertions
that they have only “a bit” of money cannot be relied on not only
because of funding implications but also because of possible false
financial declarations in the past.

Information about life and other insurances (including premium
receipt books and policies) state benefits, occupational pensions
and the person’s tax affairs should be noted.

If valuable chattels such as jewellery are found, it may be a good
idea to remove them to a secure location, but make sure this is
done openly and in accordance with any policy directions of
employers so that there can be no imputations of dishonesty.

The above are some of the considerations to be borne in mind. Each
case has to be approached on its merits. The task should be
undertaken thoroughly and sensitively and in the knowledge that we
may well be seeing things that no one other than the occupier has
seen before and which they may well be mortified to know that
anyone else has seen.

Thus, being charged with looking after the affairs, for however
short a time, of a service user who cannot do so themselves is not
only a responsibility but also a privilege.

This article provides practical tips and advice for
the many social workers and administrators who often have to search
the homes of incapacitated or deceased service users. It aims to
help professionals search more effectively and efficiently but with
an eye to the legal ramifications.

Further Information
A list of the tools useful in such searches, fuller
details of items, documents and information to be sought and some
of the relationship issues which can be involved are to be found on
the writer’s support website at

Contact the author
E-mail: or tel: 01706

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