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Why Hire a Professional Genealogist to Locate Heirs?

Although professional genealogists are playing an increasingly crucial role in family and probate law, many attorneys remain unaware and do not take full advantage of their often "no charge" services. There is no lack of information about genealogical services on the internet. The sheer amount of information is so copious, and sometimes contradictory, that it can be confusing. But perhaps the main and best reason to use a genealogist is avoiding the risks inherent to administering an estate.

The Administrator's Dilemma

The responsibility that falls to the administrator of carrying out a diligent inquiry to locate all of the heirs to an estate, regardless of where in the world they reside, can be quite a heavy one. Often, administrators underestimate the complexities of such a search, as well as the effort and resources needed to carry it out. Relatives of the deceased could be scattered throughout the country or even across the globe, while known relatives may have any number of reasons, usually selfish, that would make them less than whole-heartedly helpful when it comes to identifying the missing.

This can become especially troublesome for decedents who died intestate and without close relatives, estates with missing heirs or when there have been multiple marriages and adoptions. In some cases, the closest relatives are cousins, which can be quite numerous and difficult to track down. Even if great pains are taken to conduct a search in good faith, just the slightest oversight could lead to regrettable results with unpleasant consequences. The fact that an administrator could be liable to any heir that doesn't receive their portion of the estate should be enough to give pause to any non-professional who is considering embarking on the search themselves. In this light, a law firm attempting to handle a complicated genealogical search without the aid of specialists brings to mind that old adage about the man who tries to represent himself in court.

Of course, the most obvious cause for hesitation before reaching out to professionals to handle a search is the cost. Who wants to pile an unnecessary expense on the estate they are handling? But a clear-headed appraisal of the facts will show that, when it comes to dealing with decedents with no known relatives or estates with missing heirs, the only way to protect both the heirs and the attorneys handling the estate is to leave this work to professionals. If the heir-finding company is willing to undertake the work on a contingency basis, with the heirs located, the estate would have no cost or expense. The fees would not come from the lawyer's coffers, but from the assets of the estate itself.

What happens too often is that, an attorney with the best of intentions, assigns a search for heirs to a paralegal. But, while the attorney hoped to save by not hiring a professional, they come to discover after the hours have piled on that the task is too complicated and the paralegal does not have access to or even knowledge of the resources needed. It is only at this point that they decide to hire a genealogical services firm. But now those hours of fruitless search must either be billed or taken as a gratuitous effort.

Or perhaps the proactive paralegal goes above and beyond, using all means available to them to perform an exhaustive search, or at least one that exhausts all of the resources available to them. Let's say, for example, that they unearth 20 heirs of a decedent with no previously known relatives. Can you really be certain there wasn't one more? Or maybe there were five who were extremely difficult to find. What happens if long lost cousins start coming forward after distributions have been made? Then, there is the issue of obtaining all of the genealogical proofs such as birth, marriage and death records to actually substantiate the relationships. These are equally hard to find and can take months, depending upon the country or jurisdiction. Surely the best course of action is to steer clear of such risks altogether.

Outsourcing Risks and Headaches

What makes cases like the kind mentioned above even more unfortunate is that many times the attorney in question might have been saved from the administrator's dilemma without any cost to their firm or the estate. It is true that the searches carried out by genealogists require very specific expertise and the vast resources available only to firms experienced in the field. But what some attorneys may not know is that some of the most reputable genealogical services firms have flexible billing options and may be willing to work on a contingency basis, collecting their fees from the heirs' individual shares only after they have been located and the case distributed. Put simply, this means no costs to the estate and no out-of-pocket expenses for the attorneys handling the estate. A free service!

But, even after the decision is made to hire a professional genealogist, there remains the question as to how to choose one. After all, hiring the wrong genealogical service could be as big a mistake as handing off the job to in-house staff not trained in the field. There are, however, a few good measuring sticks to size up the merits of any firm you are considering.

One common sense measuring stick is reputation. Does the firm have a proven track record? Of course you can start by checking their Better Business Bureau rating. This is a fast and convenient way to weed out the most blatantly unreliable firms. But even with a good BBB rating, a company may be relying on a short track record with just a few cases. It is also important to look into history. Only a company with a long history of satisfactorily serving clients should be used if you want to be certain that no stone has been left unturned in your search. A family-run business in its fourth generation, Morse Genealogical Services has a record that is hard to beat in this area, and boasts over 76 years of doing this work nationally and internationally.

A little bit of inquiry into the resources available to the firm is also probably in order. As a matter of course, you would expect any genealogical services company worth their salt to have access to paid data bases. But one should also take into account certain soft resources. These are the contacts only experienced professionals can accumulate over many years and countless searches. These resources cannot be bought. They can, on other hand, buy you peace of mind and confidence that the most thorough search possible has been carried out and that no unwanted surprises will pop up later. And in the unlikely case that they should, a reputable genealogical firm will have insurance coverage. It is their reputation on the block, not the lawyers.

Finally, one might want to ask whether the firm has genealogists with the ability to testify as experts in court if need be. This ability might become necessary for cases in which records are questioned, names have been changed, names are spelled differently, vital statistic dates for certain events vary, countries of birth, marriage and death no longer exist, and when one heir contends that another heir is not related due to any of these circumstances. Expert witnesses have that special legally accepted aura of credibility based upon their years of practice and experience.

Finding the right firm might take a bit of research. Still, at the end of the day, it will be infinitely less than the work it would take a non-professional to carry out a genealogical search. Most likely, taking on such a task will not save costs, but only bring on a time-consuming extra burden. And more, it opens up a whole host of uncertainties, along with the risks attached to them. Why be exposed to such risks at all when they could be completely averted? Lawyers are not genealogists, and genealogists are not lawyers. Each has an expertise that works hand in hand with the other.

Categories: Locate an Heir
2435 South Ridgewood Avenue, South Daytona, FL 32119
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