Spotlight: Genealogy:Making the most of gene genius

Tracking down lost beneficiaries may seem like the ideal task for a trainee, but employing experts makes financial sense for a firm, says Linda Tsang.

Unsurprisingly, now is a busy time to be a solicitor winding up an estate. As one genealogist comments, many beneficiaries who have been told that they may be entitled to a share in an estate are hoping that the estate will be paid out in time for Christmas.

Whether the beneficiaries traced are the only two remaining members of a family, or surviving relatives numbering almost 100 in differing degrees of closeness to the deceased, they will all be chasing to inquire about the progress of the administration of the estate. “Thankfully”, the genealogist continues, “it is down to the solicitors to wind up the estate – genealogists only have to find the beneficiaries. How quickly the estate can be distributed depends on the the nature of the assets. Again, that is the solicitor's job.”

Searching records can be time consuming. For lawyers, this will also mean increased costs, which can eat into an estate's assets. A decision has to be made by a legal practice as to whether to have this work done by professionals. This can save time and money, as experts are likely to have greater resources and more experience in where and how to locate beneficiaries.

The in-house alternative may be appropriate in the more straightforward case. But what may seem at the outset a straightforward case may lead to numerous searches to trace all beneficiaries.

As with any professional service (although there is no professional qualification required to be a genealogist), it is important to research the firm or agent's reputation. Ask for references and samples of previous cases and check whether they have experience which is relevant to your practice, such as work for accountants or other lawyers.

The essential quality required by a genealogist is a logical mind. There are a number of associations or societies which are useful if you do not have a personal recommendation to follow. The Society of Genealogists, the Association of Genealogists and Research Agents (which has its own code of practice and its own complaints procedure), and the Institute of Probate Research Agents will all provide helpful guidance.

The Society of Genealogists also has its own web site – – which gives useful addresses and practical advice on employing a professional researcher.

One important matter to note is that the new Data Protection Act came into force on 24 October 1998. The Act implements the provisions of the EU General Data Directive issued in 1995. It may be useful to ask the genealogist if they are up to date on all the latest changes on manual records and data.

There are a number of other reasons for employing a professional. You may need advice and guidance or just a pointer in the right direction. Professionals will know where records can be found, and can suggest alternatives if initial leads do not take you anywhere useful. They may also be more realistic in gauging success and can give you an assessment backed by their experience, which can save wasting time and money on fruitless searches.

Genealogists may also have particular skills such as a knowledge of Latin, or a familiarity with old documents and records – as well as experience of the systems used by the records offices or libraries. The most relevant skill they may have is a working knowledge of the legal terms and of the legal processes which apply in relation to tracing beneficiaries or other members of the family.

Although it may seem tempting to keep the research element of the job in-house, especially if the time and money is available, the primary consideration is often speed. Money from the estate may be better spent on having someone who knows what they are doing, rather than sending a trainee who could be better employed doing fee-earning work.

Costs should be agreed at the outset. Fees are usually calculated on an hourly basis, which can range between #75 to #100 an hour. Obviously this figure is open to negotiation, depending on how much work is to be carried out. Both the details of how the genealogist is to be paid, and the actual brief of what work the genealogist is to carry out should be finalised in writing and be as detailed as possible. As to what should be in the brief, the ideal is that the lawyer should give as much information as possible. However, it can often be a subjective decision as to what is relevant and useful information and what is not.

As one genealogist comments, “when the lawyer may have made some efforts to go through the personal effects, they have to bear in mind that what they think are odd bits of useless information may be very useful in searching records. That includes the obvious matters such as date and place of both birth and death, but in between the deceased may have lived for a time somewhere else where the next of kin may now be.

“Basically, it is often just a matter of common sense. A partial family tree is useful, but the genealogist has the expertise to piece together the jigsaw from all the seemingly irrelevant information and complete the family tree, so that the estate can then be distributed according to law.”

The other main priority is communication. For the lawyers who are dealing with the estate, that does not only mean talking to the genealogist to remain up to date with their progress or non-progress.

It should be remembered that genealogists are paid for the work done in searching, not by the final result. For this reason, progress should be regularly reported back to clients or administrators, who do not want to see the estate whittled away by the costs of what may turn out to be unsuccessful searches.

Finally, as a professional adviser instructing another professional, it is vital that insurance cover is dealt with and put in place for the administration of the estate. This will cover the situation where, for example, following distribution of an estate to all of the traced beneficiaries, another beneficiary is found who also has a claim on the estate. Taking out adequate cover, and making sure that you have briefed the right genealogist in the first place, will mean that everyone, from the most distant relative who turns out to be a beneficiary, to the lawyers and the executors, will end up having a fairly profitable Christmas.