There are some questions that come up regularly in our business – what is a probate genealogist and what percentage do heir hunters take being among them. Here, we attempt to answer the top five questions people ask;

What is a Probate Genealogist?

Probate genealogists are professional researchers. What does a probate researcher do? When people die intestate (i.e. without leaving a valid will) and appear to have no known next of kin, they create family trees to determine who is the rightful beneficiary (or beneficiaries) of that person’s estate. This is done according to the intestacy laws that apply in the country where that person died. If that person owned property in another country, this will then be subject to the laws of that country, for example, should a resident of the UK have owned a holiday home in Spain. Probate genealogy firms often have to produce several family trees to accommodate the intestacy laws of several countries.

Why do Heir Hunters contact you?

If you are contacted by an heir hunter (or probate genealogist), it is usually good news. The researcher found you as part of their investigations into someone’s family tree and they believe you could be entitled to an inheritance or the share of one. People also ask ‘what do I do if I get contacted by heir hunters’ as they might worry it is a scam. Reputable firms will not mind if you say you want to check the individual or company out, which is what we always encourage potential beneficiaries to do.

How long do Heir Hunters take?

Of course it is exciting to receive news that you might be entitled to an unexpected inheritance, but bear in mind the legal process takes a while. Twelve to 18 months is the average time it takes for a UK estate to be fully researched and distributed to those who are entitled to receive it. However, if an estate is complex or has international elements, they can take longer to distribute. If the deceased person lived in the States, for example, this will normally take about two years as US institutions often ask for more complex genealogical proof and even testimony in court.

What percentage do heir hunters take?

While this can vary between firms and individuals, you should expect a fee of about 20 percent of an individual inheritance. But fees can range from 5 percent to 40 percent, depending on the size of the estate and if the heir hunters include legal fees in their commission, which would be typical if the person who died lived in the US.

Can inheritance be given before probate? It can be difficult to realise the full value of the assets before probate is granted, so while it is possible, it is not advised.

What debts are forgiven at death? It depends on the type of debt, collateral, the people left behind and the estate. If the debts are in the deceased’s name only and that person has no assets, those debts will not pass on to anybody when they die but if they have assets in their estate, joint or sole, the debts are then a liability on the estate.

Are heir hunters regulated?

Sadly no, which means that the sector can attract rogue actors. Reputable heir hunters voluntarily sign up to bodies such as the International Association of Professional Probate Researchers ( where they agree to abide by a professional conduct code and code of ethics. In addition, many UK heir hunters are registered as paralegals with the National Association of Licensed Paralegals in recognition of the vital role they play in the legal sector.


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