Family Tree Verification: Top Tips from the Experts

In the UK, the probate genealogy industry is not held in the same respect as it is by the country's European neighbours in France and Germany, where the verification of estates by professional firms where someone has died without leaving a will is considered vital. And yet we step back from placing probate genealogy firms fairly and squarely within the estate administration process, writes Danny Curran, founder and CEO of Finders International.

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While the industry is unregulated, this need not deter solicitors from working with those whose lifeblood is combing census records and online archives to piece together irrefutable evidence. At Finders International, we follow voluntary codes of conduct and regulatory regimes that can provide reassurance. Our clients must feel confident that the probate research firm is not operating a scam. In recent years, inheritance fraud is yet another growth market for scammers. Think of those bogus emails where the sender asks for bank account details in return for millions of pounds for instance.

So, reputation makes an excellent starting point, but we always stress that anyone who wants to use the services of a probate genealogy company should first ensure that they are dealing with a professional company. Firms can appear to list ‘offices’ around the world by placing keywords on their website and can use an impressive serviced ‘office’ address in a large city like London.

It is vital to check whether the company is a member of a voluntary self-regulatory body such as the IAPPR, a unique international body representing elite professional firms across the globe. Furthermore, the firm’s list of Credentials and Accreditations should give reassurance.

Family testimony – not usually fail-safe

Another issue I see in the UK probate research industry is the reliance by the solicitor, administrator or executor on family testimony, without independent verification. Some solicitors accept the word of family members on who is or isn’t related to the deceased and by what degree of kinship. This can lead to incorrect estate distribution.

I once worked on an intestate estate of around £400k, where the solicitor wanted verification that their client was the sole heir to the estate. The client was an elderly lady who claimed to be her late brother’s sole surviving next of kin.

However, we discovered she’d disowned her nephew many years earlier and didn’t recognise him as part of her family. His ‘crime’ was to grow a beard to his waist and to apparently exhibit anti-social behaviour. Once we had identified and located him, we established he had suffered from a mental illness for many years. In this case, half the estate rightly passed to him.

Overlooked siblings and children

I have lost count of the children, siblings and half-siblings who have been overlooked or forgotten by solicitor clients referring cases to us. It’s not deliberate. Families lose touch, large families forget how many relatives they have, children are born out of wedlock and to single parents and, since 1927, adoptive families can legally inherit.

It is an excellent idea for the solicitor to interview their client before engaging a probate research firm, to make sure all relatives are accounted for.

There are four basic fee models available from most professional probate research firms. Freedom of choice is imperative to cover a variety of situations.

The four main options are:

  1. contingency fees, where a beneficiary signs a percentage-based agreement with the probate research firm
  2. an estate/trust contingency fee, where the executor agrees to a percentage-based fee from a named beneficiary’s entitlement
  3. a budget fee paid by the estate
  4. a fixed fee paid by the estate.

Contingency fees most popular

Firms may name these fees differently, but this basic model is offered by most firms. Contingency fees are the most popular option. They are seen as fairer in many circumstances – payable only on a successful distribution of an estate. An agreed budget or a fixed fee at the expense of the estate may be more appropriate, depending on the circumstances.

Probate research firms are usually able to offer budget fees payable by the general estate, or contingency fees where the fee is agreed directly with a beneficiary or the executor and expressed as a percentage of the sum they receive.

There are different situations where one fee option may be more appropriate. For example, if there is no grant or no known next of kin to extract a grant, a fee payable by the general estate cannot be used, as there is nobody with legal authority to agree to such a fee.

Be wary of low initial quotes

Budget or fixed fees paid by the general estate diminish the whole estate value, something which any next of kin who knew the deceased often sees as unfair.

If the probate research firm works to a contingency fee and fails to find any further entitled heirs, it usually receives nothing at all for its work, but the report can secure the vital indemnity insurance policy needed to safeguard the administrator.

There are dangers of being ‘hooked’ into using a firm based on a very low initial quote. Cheap does not necessarily mean better. It is often true that you get what you pay for, and this is not an area where it pays to cut corners.

Insurance – don’t skip this vital protection

An insurance policy against missing or unknown beneficiary claims is crucial. Sometimes, administrators seem certain they have identified all next of kin and consider taking out insurance cover against any further claims a waste of money. However, there is an increasing number of claims where no traditional documentation such as birth certificates exists, and DNA evidence is also being used more than ever before.

If there is no formal birth or adoption certificate, it’s more likely that a probate research firm will be unable to find ‘undocumented’ claimants. Insurers demand proper evidence, and they seek evidence from recognised firms of probate researchers.

If you choose to use a well-established firm, this often means insurance policies will be instantly approved, which save hours of your time. The all-important thing is to be covered, and in an ideal world, it would be a statutory requirement on all estates that are greater than £15,000, or where a small estate indemnity is not being used. 

If you would like to find out more about Finders International’s family tree verification service, please visit the website or contact Finders via email: or telephone: +44 (0) 20 7490 4935/freephone: 0800 085 8796.

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