How To Select The Right Probate Genealogy Firm
In France and Germany, probate research and the verification of intestate estates using professional firms is considered vital, on a par with the legal profession. Yet in the UK, we struggle to place probate genealogy firms fairly and squarely within the estate administration process.
The industry is unregulated, which is not necessarily a problem and should not deter solicitors. My firm adheres to voluntary codes and regulatory regimes that can provide reassurance. The public must feel confident that the probate research firm is not operating a scam. Think of those bogus emails where the sender asks for bank account details in return for millions of pounds for instance.
Reputation is a good starting point, but make sure you 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.
Over-reliance on family testimony
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 wander around his housing estate shouting and swearing. 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.
Forgetting the 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:
- contingency fees, where a beneficiary signs a percentage-based agreement with the probate research firm
- an estate / trust contingency fee, where the executor agrees a percentage-based fee from a named beneficiary’s entitlement
- a budget fee paid by the estate
- a fixed fee paid by the estate.
The basic model
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.
Fixed fees ‘unfair’
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.
Importance of insurance
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 are 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 likely that a research firm will be unable to find ‘undocumented’ claimants. Unless you use a recognised firm of probate researchers, insurers are unlikely to accept a genealogist’s report as evidence.
Using a recognised firm will often mean an insurance policy is instantly approved, saving many hours of your time. My preference would be to make insurance a statutory requirement on all £15k-plus estates, or where a small estate indemnity is not being used. Things may go wrong, and the important thing is to be covered.
This article was submitted to be published by Finders International as part of their advertising agreement with Today’s Wills and Probate. The views expressed in this article are those of the submitter and not those of Today’s Wills and Probate.