As a boy, Martin Amstell loved nothing more than a visit to the North London home of his glamorous blonde actress aunt.
He remembers being so beguiled by her beauty that ‘if she smiled at me, I was so overawed that I’d hide behind the sofa’.
Tessa Amstell was a Thirties Pinewood Studios starlet, a magazine model for the ‘Marcel Wave’ hairstyle so loved by women of that era. She and her jazz musician husband Billy moved in swanky London circles, rubbing shoulders with celebrities of the era including the Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson.
Fast-forward 70 years and that same home in Kenton, near Harrow, has brought untold misery to Martin, a 73-year-old retired film editor, after a ‘cavalier and reckless’ heir hunter — a company that traces people who may not realise they’re in line for part of a deceased relative’s estate — came perilously close to denying him the home his aunt left him in her will.
Battle: Martin Amstell pictured outside the bungalow left to him by his actress aunt Tessa
‘He slaughtered her personality,’ says Martin, in his first interview since the David-and-Goliath battle made national headlines this week.
In measured tones that belie his sadness and fury, Martin, who shared his aunt’s love of film, says simply: ‘I have so many happy memories of the house when Tessa and Billy lived there. Their home was always filled with music and laughter. Tessa would be devastated to know that it had caused such heartache.’
When Tessa died in a nursing home in January 2011, the 98-year-old widow was childless and left her bungalow, filled with jazz records, film posters and celebrity photographs, to the nephew she regarded as the closest thing she had to a son.
But this act of love, set out in a will the socialite made a couple of years before her death, marked the beginning of a legal nightmare which, until a judge stepped in this week, almost saw mild-mannered Martin deprived of his inheritance.
Martin remembers being so beguiled by Tessa’s (pictured) beauty that ‘if she smiled at me, I was so overawed that I’d hide behind the sofa’
After Tessa’s death, the home-made will was mislaid and so her estate was not formally admitted to probate, the legal process by which a person’s estate is dealt with after their death. Martin had no idea that this legal state of limbo placed him in a precarious position.
Unfortunately, her empty £500,000 home caught the attention of heir hunter Andrew Fraser, who has appeared on the BBC series Heir Hunters, a programme documenting the work of those who devote their lives to tracing beneficiaries.
In a move that will strike fear into the hearts of families across Britain, Fraser obtained legal control of Mrs Amstell’s estate after being employed by a local authority to track down beneficiaries, changed the locks at her house and, despite being told of the existence of a will, was just days from selling it at auction when he was stopped by an 11th-hour injunction.
It was only this week, after a protracted legal battle, that a judge ordered Fraser to hand the keys to Mrs Amstell’s beloved home to her nephew and to foot a legal bill said to amount to around £130,000.
‘For the past two years, it’s been like having a sewer rat sinking its teeth into my neck and not letting go,’ says Martin when we meet in a local hotel. ‘It’s been terribly stressful, but I knew I was in the right and I was determined not to give in.’
In a tweed jacket, smart shirt and tie, Martin is charming and solicitous. But his passion is evident when he dwells on the consequences of the heir-hunting industry. ‘I felt so strongly about fighting this. If I hadn’t had the money to fight it, I would almost certainly have caved in.
‘What really preys on my mind is that people like this get away with it most of the time.
‘If this is what happens when you tell someone there is a will, and they choose not to mention it to the court, then it’s likely this is being done by other firms. Something needs to be done.’
So how on earth did such a horrendous situation arise — especially given that Mrs Amstell not only signed a will, but had it witnessed by two people?
Aside from the upset this case has caused, it shines a spotlight on concerns about how local authorities use heir-hunting firms to deal with empty properties and those who die without a will. Such arrangements offer huge profits to the heir hunters, who track down potential beneficiaries in return for a slice of the inheritance.
Heir hunter Andrew Fraser outside Central London County Court during hearing in dispute with Martin Amstell
But legal experts warn that the involvement of the unregulated probate research industry is leading to massive overcharging and estates being awarded to the wrong relatives.
Mrs Amstell, however, not only made a will in February 2009, but when she put her signature to the two-sided single page she did so with such vigour that the ink from her fountain pen bled through the paper. The document, which was drawn up by another family member using a will-writing guide, was commended in court this week for being ‘a model of simplicity and clarity rarely seen these days’.
Having moved into a nursing home several years earlier, she left the house, which she hoped would remain in the family, to Martin and the remainder of her estate — £130,000 in cash and assets — to 22 different animal charities.
‘The first she mentioned leaving her home to me was two or three years before she died,’ Martin recalls. ‘She said, “I want you to have the bungalow.” The next time I saw her she said she was sorry for being a “soppy old sausage” but some time after that she spoke about drawing up the will.’
After Tessa’s death, Martin and his sister might have been expected to apply for probate so Tessa’s wishes could be carried out. But, he explains, with homes of their own, they were in no rush to act
Although Martin wasn’t present when the will was signed, it was witnessed by his older sister Marion, who was named executor, and by one of Mrs Amstell’s oldest family friends. Photocopies were made and, along with the original, stored at Marion’s home.
When Tessa died peacefully in January 2011, Martin, who is unmarried, his sister and her children were the only mourners at Bushey Jewish Cemetery, Hertfordshire, where she was laid to rest alongside her husband, who had died in December 2005.
After Tessa’s death, he and his sister might have been expected to apply for probate so Tessa’s wishes could be carried out. But, he explains, with homes of their own, they were in no rush to act.
The bungalow had already been empty for years because Tessa (born Toba Gembitsky in 1912) and Billy had moved into a nursing home together in the late Nineties, when they were both in their 80s.
Mrs Amstell’s husband, jazz musician Barnet ‘Billy’ Amstell (pictured)
The couple, who met at Pinewood Studios while working on the film Kicking The Moon Around and married in 1938, refused to sell the two-bedroom property and left it in the care of Martin’s sister.
‘It was like a ghost house,’ says Martin. ‘It was exactly as they had left it with all their belongings.’
As Tessa’s attorney, Marion had handled her aunt’s financial affairs for several years, arranging for money to be paid from Tessa’s bank account to cover nursing fees and paying gas and electricity bills. She made regular visits to the bungalow to sort the post.
‘I wasn’t thinking about selling the bungalow even though I wasn’t going to live in it’, says Martin. ‘I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but it never occurred to me that someone would try to take it from me.’ With the benefit of hindsight, he wishes they had acted sooner.
There was an added complication because Marion, who is now 85, could not immediately lay her hands on the will. She had moved house between the drawing-up of the document and Tessa’s death, and couldn’t recall where she had placed it among the mountains of paperwork and boxes of books she and her family had accumulated. Not long after Tessa’s death, her own health deteriorated when she suffered a stroke.
‘I didn’t want to put pressure on her,’ says Martin. ‘I didn’t see it as an urgent problem. Of course I regret it now. What has happened is a lesson in how not to do these things. I was incredibly naive.’
Problems began when Tessa’s empty bungalow came to the attention of Brent Council, though it’s not known how. They contacted Andrew Fraser, of Fraser and Fraser, a London-based family firm of international probate researchers, in a bid to locate the property’s owner.
Fraser changed the locks on the north London home and stopped Mrs Amstell’s nephew from claiming his aunt’s house
The company specialises ‘in tracing owners or their next-of-kin to properties that are vacant, occupied illegally or falling into disrepair’.
Such services are usually provided free of charge to local authorities because the ‘leads’ can be highly lucrative.
If it transpires that the owner is dead, and if a blood relative can be located, heir-hunting firms will offer to secure an unexpected inheritance for an individual in return for a hefty percentage of it. The first the Amstells knew of Fraser and Fraser’s involvement was when Marion received a phone call from one of the company’s case workers in July 2016, asking if she knew of a will.
‘She had no idea who was calling her,’ says Martin. ‘She was very suspicious. She told them that there was a valid will and that she was the executor, but that the will could not be immediately located.’
A letter from the company followed saying that if no will was produced, there was a risk that Tessa’s estate would be regarded as ‘intestate’, or without a will.
Mr Amstell was forced to take his fight to the Royal Courts of Justice, where Fraser was ordered to pay back the costs
By then Andrew Fraser had already tracked down one of Tessa’s distant relatives — an American-born man named in court as Keith Simpson — and agreed with him that Fraser and Fraser would receive a proportion of any amount of Tessa’s estate that they recovered for him.
He went on to apply to the Winchester probate registry for a grant of letters of administration over Tessa’s estate on the basis of intestacy, swearing an affidavit without mentioning the will Marion had told him about. This gave him control of the house on behalf of the beneficiary.
Judge Nigel Gerald said in court this week that Fraser was ‘materially misleading’. Taking control of Tessa’s property ‘with gusto’, he changed the locks and cleared the house of a lifetime of Tessa and Billy’s cherished possessions. Among them was the only known photograph of Martin’s Jewish grandparents, who fled persecution in Warsaw in 1898 and arrived in London unable to read or write, and speaking only Yiddish.
Martin Amstell pictured outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London
Fraser went so far as to put the bungalow up for sale at auction in February 2017 and, even when Martin and his sister had tracked down the will (tucked inside a cardboard box filled with other files), did not withdraw it from sale until threatened with an injunction.
Fraser then embarked on a hugely expensive 12-month trawl through Tessa’s medical records in what was described in court as a ‘pointless’ attempt to prove she had not been of sound mind.
‘In effect he cherry-picked her medical records, ignoring the parts that made it clear how sharp-minded she was,’ says Martin.
Even when he dropped the challenge to the inheritance in 2017, and Martin was handed the grant of letters of administration, Fraser went to court in a bid to get him and the animal charities named in the will to pay the £134,000 costs he ran up while supposedly hunting for heirs.
For this, Fraser came under especially heavy fire from the judge: ‘Mr Fraser treated this as a commercial venture,’ he said, adding that Fraser had ‘acted in a belligerent and provocative manner which appears to be intended to run up costs and bring pressure to bear on Mr Amstell to withdraw or settle the claim.
‘There was a specific and deliberate intention to run this litigation as disproportionately, obstructively and expensively as possible.’
Andrew Fraser told the Mail that he was ‘disappointed by the result’ of this week’s costs hearing and that Fraser and Fraser had not yet decided if they would appeal.
A statement released by the company said: ‘The existence of a possible will, its content and the location of the will were fully disclosed and information was drip-fed to the blood family whom Fraser and Fraser had located.’
It added: ‘In the six years between Mrs Amstell passing away and Mr Fraser obtaining a grant, nothing had happened apart from the will being lost. Indeed, none of the charities had received any money and bills for utilities and council tax concerning the property had not been paid.’
Martin Amstell’s main concern is that the heir-hunting industry isn’t regulated.
‘I’m not sure that the average person would be able to stand up to them,’ he says. ‘My sister is in a state of complete exhaustion and I am still reeling.’
Now he has the keys to Tessa’s bungalow, Martin must decide what to do with it. He entered the property for the first time on Thursday and was devastated to find it stripped bare. After so much distress, he says he will now probably sell it.
‘Tessa loved the bungalow,’ he says quietly, ‘but I think she’d understand that it’s time to let it go. My sister and I have been through enough.’