Every week the Treasury Solicitor updates the public ‘Bona Vacantia’ list of cases where someone has died intestate and there are no known heirs. Starting with the name of the deceased, probate genealogists, the professional ‘heir hunters’ employed by probate lawyers, may embark on a search process that can at times be relatively simple, at others complex and time consuming. Often the probate genealogist builds a family tree from which heirs can be identified and located.Although the internet has helped the heir hunters, increased mobility and marriage breakdown has conversely made their work more complex and increased the number of intestacies that, although they may be only small estates, require extensive work to trace and locate missing beneficiaries.

Probate genealogy has become a fiercely competitive business. Individuals inspired by television programmes like the BBC’s Heir Hunters and using readily available internet resources, now compete against established professional probate genealogists to trace heirs.

40 years ago there were two or three firms dominating probate work. This has changed and there are now 65 UK members of the Association of Professional Genealogists. This has had the twin effect off increasing competition and giving solicitors a greater choice when the need to find a missing heir arises, but legal executives must also be aware of the risks.

It is not unusual for the individual heir hunter to believe they can compete with the larger professional probate genealogists but this is not necessarily the case. Due in part to rushed digitisation, the accuracy and completeness of publicly accessible data sources is questionable. It is often the case that an individual will believe that, having used these sources they know all the family, when in fact they have made false assumptions and a professional probate genealogist will have to tell them that they’ve got it wrong. How do the professional companies know this? Because, they have highly experienced researchers who understand the intricacies and pitfalls of genealogical research.

Lawyers new to instructing genealogists are advised to ensure that their providers meet certain minimum criteria. A good reputation is the first thing to look for, they should be a member of at least one of the main genealogy organisations and abide by their code of practice. Organisations such as AGRA the Association of Genealogists and Researchers will have complaints procedures, and although the sanctions may only run to expulsion, membership of such an organisation is the first sign of integrity.

Secondly they should meet external quality standards such as ISO and thirdly carry professional indemnity insurance.

Many of the larger firms are agents for insurers and thus regulated by the Financial Services Authority. They provide missing beneficiary insurance which protects trustees and administrators against the event of an unknown beneficiary emerging after an estate has been distributed.

Contingency fees are seen as being the fairest way of charging, particularly in intestacy cases. The majority of professional probate genealogists work on a contingency fee basis. The fee is always in proportion to the value of the estate, which is often worth only a few thousand pounds, and as the probate genealogists only get paid when the estate is distributed they have a greater incentive to locate the heirs in a timely and efficient manner.

When they are unsuccessful they receive nothing which can backfire on them when an estate has been costly and time-consuming to research.

Some would argue for charging fixed fees, but this runs the risk of the fees becoming a larger proportion of the estate, especially in the smaller cases. However most professional probate genealogists will work on either basis and offer range of charging options.

The search process can lead the heir hunter through the darker side of family life, lost relationships, and broken marriages to the eventual location of a distant heir. The upside being that in certain cases the work of the probate genealogist can reunite families, tell them their unknown family history and of course bring them an unexpected financial windfall.

For further information and advice contact Finders

Daniel Curran
Written by Daniel Curran
Daniel is a leading figure in the UK Heir Hunting industry. He is from Isleworth in West London and has lived in London for most of his life. He has been in the probate genealogy profession since 1990. He formed Finders in 1997 after 7 years at another firm.