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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