The dark side of probate research

In this article, first published in Solicitors Journal on 16 August 2016, Anglia Research warns that while the BBC’s Heir Hunters programme has increased public awareness of the role of probate genealogists, it has also brought many amateurs into the industry.

In 2007 the BBC launched Heir Hunters, a programme that follows the fortunes of probate genealogists as they race to locate missing heirs of intestate estates.

By 2008 the title had morphed into H£ir Hunt£rs. Pound signs were waved at viewers, directing them towards what was once a relatively unknown and specialist industry – an industry, crucially, that is unregulated.

Probate research involves tracing an intestate person’s family tree backwards through time until all the entitled living branches are identified and then traced to present-day beneficiaries. A competent probate researcher needs to be a competent genealogist. The work is largely speculative, with remuneration obtained via finder’s fee agreements.

As public awareness increased, a bandwagon rode into town, and a variety of franchises and subscription enterprises emerged. These fostered the impression that probate genealogy is a business open to any enthusiast with an internet connection. Subscribers were lured in with allusions to ‘vast income opportunities’ and claims that ‘money does grow on trees’.

One such operation claims that a ‘top franchisee’ earns around £100,000 a year in commission and charges applicants £11,995 for training. Another business offers a training service to subscribers and then appears to use leads that are generated through its various websites to find cases for its network to research.

These ‘trainers’, some of whom hold ‘master classes’, are not accredited by respected genealogy organisations. In fact, according to one subscription organisation: ‘Total absence of any qualifications is no bar from being successful at probate research.’

Double charging

Amateur researchers can cause problems for solicitors and personal representatives alike, but some recent developments are even more worrying. Email scams, insider dealing, grotesque overcharging, and downright embezzlement – the world of probate research has witnessed all of these in the past few years.

There is also the ever-growing practice of heir hunters actually conducting the administration of estates, usually via a limited power of attorney from one relative. They term it ‘self-administering’, and recommend it to clients despite having no legal or accountancy training.

Maladministration – both accidental and, sometimes, deliberate – is rife, and beneficiaries can be short-changed or missed out. One common practice involves self-administrators reimbursing themselves their research costs out of estate funds, despite these being an operational overhead incurred during the research process and recovered within finder’s fee payments. Such double charging is worryingly widespread.

These are not insignificant amounts and shouldn’t be approved as legitimate estate charges.

Flawed contracts with beneficiaries are also a problem. Compliance with consumer protection regulations seems low priority, and some contracts ride roughshod over consumers’ rights and are therefore cancellable.

Check credentials

Although these so-called self-administrators clearly cut out solicitors, many heir hunters may still call upon the services of professional practitioners for their clients. If you’re approached to act or join forces, it is worth asking questions of the referrer. Does it have a verifiable physical address and named staff? If it claims to be a company, check Companies House. Does it carry professional indemnity insurance, offering protection against negligence?

What are the heir hunter’s credentials? Are they verifiable? Whether it has registration under the Data Protection Act or Financial Conduct Authority authorisation, it’s fairly straightforward to check a business’s credentials with various independent organisations.

As for genealogical credentials, how many members of staff have full membership of the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA), its Scottish partner the Association of Scottish Genealogists and Researchers in Archives, or Accredited Genealogists Ireland, all of which enforce rigorous assessment procedures?

Be wary of boasts of membership of organisations such as the Association of Professional Genealogists, the Society of Genealogists or other less well-established groups, which are open to anyone upon payment of a fee, with no experience or knowledge required. Finally, are any legally qualified staff members employed by the business?

In a nutshell, practise due diligence. There are hundreds of inexperienced hopefuls and mavericks out there: if your assistance is sought, don’t assume they’ve got their law or their genealogy right.

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