How to avoid the pitfalls of North American searches

People tracing in North America can present some unique challenges that aren’t commonly found in domestic enquiries. As a result, it is widely recommended that legal professionals use a specialist genealogist who has experience in dealing in this area.

Given that we have tracing people for over 50 years, it is perhaps unsurprising that Title Research is frequently appointed to locate missing beneficiaries in both the United States and Canada. The number of North American cases we are asked to investigate can be attributed to emigration patterns from the UK in the twentieth century when it was most common for the population to move to former colonial, English speaking countries.

Many of the challenges faced are not present when dealing with a similar UK case; online access to the entire collection of birth, marriage and death indices for England and Wales has been available to genealogists for over ten years. This enables anyone, anywhere in the world to speculatively search for events that occurred in England and Wales and build a family tree.

Such access is virtually unique in genealogy. In Canada, no such national index exists – all records are decentralised to state or province level. Access restrictions in most parts of Canada also do not permit members of the public to search these records in the same way as we can in the UK.

In this country, we often take for granted that we can apply for a copy of a birth, marriage or death certificate for any event that has occurred since 1837 for a minimal fee and receive the document soon after, normally within a week. Again, this places us in an almost globally unique position. Such records in the United States are organised by either state, or county level. It is necessary to know precisely where an event occurred before attempting to order the document and many states and counties will not release documents such as a birth certificate if there is any chance that the individual is alive. Therefore, there is a significant challenge to access these documents and even if this is achieved, the timescales for receiving them vary from a few weeks to many months.

So how do you overcome these problems if you are trying to trace beneficiaries in North America? Firstly, you need to ensure that you speak to a professional genealogist who has experience in dealing with these challenges. Even if they have not recently worked in the state concerned, they should be familiar with the records and be able to suggest ways to work around the issue. At Title Research, we also have access to specialist US databases which can help us narrow down a search to the specific state required. Where necessary we can also work with trusted partners in both the US and Canada to provide the ‘boots on the ground’ that are often needed.

Selecting a partner on the other side of the Atlantic can also throw up challenges that you need to consider. We have become aware of two cases in the US where The Justice Department is investigating a company that seeks out heirs to the recently deceased and is looking into whether price-fixing and other anti-competition practices have deceived relatives who have enlisted the company’s services. Federal prosecutors have recently announced plea agreements with two industry executives and a California company as part of an antitrust investigation that is likely to result in additional criminal charges.

The severity of these charges just goes to show how selecting the wrong partner can have catastrophic consequences for you and your clients. Simon Barber, Operations Manager at Title Research, commented; “Our North American partners operate on the same ‘time and expenses’ model as we do. This allows us to offer our services with a pricing structure that is clear and transparent, which we feel is the fairest option for everyone involved. We would never work on a contingency fee basis or use a partner who does so, and I would highly recommend that any client considers the risks in doing so before appointing a genealogist.”

Title Research offers a wide range of services to assist clients dealing with cases that involve North American assets or beneficiaries. Whether you need to trace beneficiaries or deal with the valuation, transfer and repatriation of assets, we can help. Contact our client services team on 0345 87 27 600 if you would like more information about how we can assist you or visit our website to find out more.

This article was submitted to be published by Title Research as part of their advertising agreement with Today’s Wills & Probate. The views expressed in this article are those of the submitter and not those of Today’s Wills & Probate.

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