The inside story of tracing missing heirs

The problems that arise when beneficiaries to an Estate are missing or unknown can seem daunting, but need not necessarily be so. Help exists – probate genealogists specialise in identifying and locating missing heirs and beneficiaries worldwide for solicitors, executors, administrators and trustees of estates. Their experiences and expertise is wide-ranging and their stories often fascinating, bringing to light extraordinary family stories and occasional skeletons in the closet!


People are contacted every day of the working week with news that they are due to inherit from a long-lost cousin, great aunt, or other family member, usually unknown to the recipient of this windfall. This surprising news usually comes to these people not from solicitors, but from specialist probate genealogists such as Finders.

Mysterious postcard

A recent case was referred to Finders by solicitors who had precious little information. The only clue was a suspicion that the deceased may have had a half-blood sibling somewhere – a hunch based on a mysterious postcard being found amongst the deceased’s possessions. The postcard was written in the 1960s by the deceased’s father, Mr Marconi, a former Italian POW, and made references that needed investigation.

Mr Marconi had been captured by British forces after arriving in England by parachute in 1941. Not being ones to incarcerate the able-bodied, the British Army put him to work on a farm. After 6 months of hard labour, a romantic liaison was established with the farmer’s daughter and Mr Marconi subsequently stayed in England after the war. The couple married and had a daughter, Florence. However, after the early death of Mrs Marconi, nothing more was seen or heard of Mr Marconi. His daughter, Florence, had now passed away intestate and her next of kin needed to be found. The solicitor knew of a cousin but could not be sure that closer kin did not exist.

It was established that in 1965 Mr Marconi returned to Italy, re-married in 1968 and unfortunately lost contact with his daughter. It transpired that he had 3 further children before dying in 1979, taking the story of Florence to his grave. After several months of research, Florence’s half-blood siblings were found and a meeting convened at a lawyer’s office in Rome, where the story was explained to the unsuspecting heirs. You can imagine the surprise! They never knew of their English half-sister, or their father’s secret. The heirs’ entitlement was duly established and they ultimately inherited a considerable sum each; the proceeds of the sale of the farm where their father had, ironically, been held ‘prisoner’ during World War II.

Take to the road

Another recent case involved tracing heirs of shopkeeper Ivan Gregorovitch, who died in UK with no known next of kin. He was born in Ukraine, but died with no will and no further information. After extensive research, it was discovered that cousins were the closest next of kin. However, they lived in rural Ukraine without telephones, let alone email or computers.

Most unusually these days, the researchers then had to take to the road. After many days of driving around rural areas, all heirs had been visited and informed that their cousin had passed away in England. The news transformed their lives, as they each received a considerable sum of money.

Demystifying research

In 2008, 267,480 grants of representation were taken out to estates in the jurisdiction of England & Wales. On the great majority of these estates, the beneficiaries will have been known and in touch with the deceased at the date of death. However, for a small proportion, maybe just 2%, research will be required to find missing beneficiaries. These are of two main types.

Firstly, on testate estates, one or more beneficiaries named in the will, or entitled under its provisions, may be missing, or may have predeceased with enquiries then becoming necessary to locate those benefitting under a gift-over clause.

Secondly, on intestate estates, it is necessary to identify and locate the statutory next of kin, who will be the heirs at law; on these cases, more substantial investigations may be necessary to reconstruct the family tree and determine all who are entitled. The two case studies above were of this type.

There is a certain art to tracing these beneficiaries but no great mystery and very high success rates. The specialist firms of probate genealogists would not be in business if success rates were not high and the risk of failure correspondingly small. As in most professions and trades, success is largely a matter of training, experience and methodology. This being so, solicitors should be safe in making a working assumption that, in most circumstances, success will be achieved by whichever research firm they select. So how should a practitioner choose which firm to instruct?

Genealogists’ fees

The primary differentiating factor is in approaches to costing. The probate genealogy industry has been around since at least the 1920s and during this time two contrasting types of cost basis have developed.

The first is the so-called “contingency” fee basis. This grew in response to the Treasury Solicitor’s habit of advertising unclaimed (potentially bona vacantia) estates; probate genealogists then worked on these cases speculatively and claimed a commission fee from the heirs they located…..The second cost basis is where the genealogist works on either a time and expenses basis, or sometimes on a fixed fee basis, agreed in advance with the probate practitioner handling the estate.

As in most situations there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.  A good firm of probate genealogists will be able to discuss a variety of fee options and costing methods.

Top tips

So what is the probate practitioner to do? Here are best practice tips from Daniel Curran, the MD of Finders:

  1. Prompt action is essential, even on seemingly minor problems such a single missing pecuniary legatee. You do not want to find out at the last minute that you have no money to fund research to locate the beneficiary, not least because that legatee will be entitled not just to the sum stipulated in the will but also to claim interest upon it if they are not paid up within the executor’s year.
  2. Consult two or more firms of probate genealogists at the earliest opportunity. Advice is free and probate genealogists will be keen to provide it. You should receive a detailed assessment, covering the likely prospects, any foreseeable difficulties, and the implications to the estate of the different costing methods suggested.
  3. Discuss the genealogists’ advice and evaluate the way forward with the PRs. Revert to the genealogists to answer any questions or concerns you have.
  4. Select the costing method which is appropriate for the estate, bearing in mind the PRs’ duty to preserve the estate assets for the benefit of the heirs

Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

Finders can be contacted via or on freephone 0800 085 8796.

back to articles