Where there's a will

Linda Tsang gives some advice on how to go about finding long-lost beneficiaries

what do you do when you are instructed to act in an estate and have to trace the beneficiaries who were not in contact with or even known to the testator? How do you trace the long-lost heir?

If you are in London, the Family Records Centre which was opened by the Lord Chancellor in July this year, is a useful one-stop shop. The centre is in north London, and houses a joint service provided by the Office for National Statistics and the Public Record Office, where you can check the records of: births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales since 1837; British citizens abroad since the late 18th century; adoptions since 1927; census returns from 1841 to 1891; death duty registers from 1796 to 1858; non-parochial registers from 1567 to 1858 and more.

But in the case of tracing the more elusive or distant relatives, or dealing with people approaching a solicitor as trustee who have knowledge of an asset which perhaps should be included in the estate but has not been, this can be extremely time-consuming. It is often quicker, and sometimes cheaper in terms of fee-earner time, to instruct a probate research firm or genealogists to do the legwork for you. This is usually the next step if you have had no response or success in advertising in the national press with the News of the World – historically regarded as one of the most useful publications.

A useful starting point to find such a firm is the legal press, or by personal recommendation from another probate practitioner. An indication of the reputation and track record of the firm is to check whether it is a member of the Association of Genealogists and Research Agents or the International Probate Research Association, which are the two covering organisations which ensure that their members perform in an ethical and proper fashion.

Once you have located a research firm, there are a number of essentials to be covered – in particular, agreeing the fees to be paid.

It is not always easy to predict the time and work which might be involved in order to get a precise quote, but one practitioner has solved this problem by agreeing that the instructed firm will go as far as they can for, say, £100 or £200, and they come back with the information which they have obtained up to that monetary limit. As the instructing solicitor entrusted with the estate funds, you can then decide how much further you want them to go.

From the probate researcher or genealogist's point of view, one of the fascinations in this field is that there is nothing usual in this profession. All the cases are different, and “half the fun lies in the unusual situations which families get into”.

The advice from their side is that it makes sense in the longer term to contact the researcher sooner rather than later. Although solicitors may be reluctant to do this when they have to keep an eye on the expenses being deducted from the estate, if they, or the executors start their own investigations, they can end up wasting time and effort trying to tackle the matter themselves, when the right research firm has the know-how and resources to do the work quicker and cheaper. This is especially true in international cases. Instructing solicitors should also give as much detail in the brief as possible. Although the starting point is usually just a death certificate, you should brief the researcher in detail – even the most unusual snippet can be a very important lead and its relevance and usefulness should be left to the researcher to decide on.

From the instructing side, in terms of the actual work to carried out, solicitors should spell out very precisely what the limits of the brief are, such as putting a restriction on them approaching the potential beneficiaries themselves or on the use of advertising and the terms of allowing any publicity regarding either the testator or the beneficiaries.