What is Probate Research?
Probate research is a topic that many have become interested in since BBC1’s Heir Hunters came out.
Probate research is about identifying possible heirs in the absence of a deceased person’s will (or a badly documented one), finding their whereabouts (if required), and determining their right to the inheritance in court.
There are a number of possible scenarios in this regard. There may not be any known heirs at all. There could be heirs whose names are known but there’s no information for establishing contact. Heirs may belong to one part of the family but the branch of the family might not be known.
In all of the above, probate researchers / genealogists try to find out who the next-of-kin is.
Finders International is one such company of probate genealogists. This company aids in bringing together Irish heirs with their inheritance.
Initially the company was a one man show being run by Padraic Grennan. The company now has six employees, with a substantial increase in their work since the last two years.
Given the nature of the job, one might think that their services were barely in demand, but Grennan informs that the firm has never been busier. Properties long abandoned have had their cases handed over to the company by various county councils. However the company is encountering resistance in Ireland, where the concept of probate research is comparatively recent.
Grennan says that probate research was a service that was absent in Ireland two years ago. Therefore he has taken on the task of convincing them. The Waterford County Council gave Grennan’s company five cases which were solved very quickly in the space of a few days.
Uk and Ireland overlap
There are some fundamental differences in the legislature and the handling of such cases by the State, says Grennan
If an Irish individual passes away without having written a will, his / her estate is distributed amongst members of the family in accordance with the Succession Act of 1965.
If the specified beneficiaries cannot be located, the estate in consideration, inclusive of savings and property, is transferred to the State. The funds are deposited in the Intestate Estate Funds Deposit Account.
According to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, there is however a process for the details of the estate to be made available in print media at a local and national level, in order to find the next of kin. However such details would not be made available online, according to a representative of the department.
In the United Kingdom, the list of estates that have not been claimed, is called the Bona Vacantia. This list is made available by the Treasury. Probate genealogists acquire this and try to locate the beneficiaries mentioned.
Finders International has developed a website “unclaimedestates.ie”, that is an inventory of unclaimed estates of Irish born people living in the UK. Currently there are more than 600 unclaimed estates people with Irish ancestry.
Estates wind up
Probate solicitors are the ones providing the bulk of the work for Grennan’s company. The solicitors are winding up estates for people.
Once they get a job, work starts by making a family tree. The date of birth and the place where the individual was born is determined. The next step is acquiring birth, death, and marriage certificates to develop an understanding of possible inheritors.
There could be a multitude of explanations for the abandonment of a property. It is entirely possible for a legal inheritance but the inheritor may be financially incapable of utilizing it, or could be anticipating an increase in its market value, says Grennan.
Grennan elaborates on how there exist cases in which the dead owner was the only progeny of his/her parents. In this scenario, the solicitors are being asked by the neighbours about the ownership of the estate in question. The usual outcome is that the property falls into disrepair. However legal ownership can be established and the property could become saleable.
It is Grennan’s advice for people to visit the website “unclaimedestates.ie” and check the listed surnames for their own.
Controversy regarding the ethics of probate research firms
On one hand, there are firms like Finders International. On the other hand there are probate companies that have questionable ethics, to say the least.
Heir Hunters has been a popular show on BBC in which probate firms try to find relatives of a person who passed away without having made a will. Probate firms charge a commission for their services, which can be quite sizeable.
It came to light that a lot of the firms had been charging commissions of up to 40%, for telling relatives about the estate they had inherited.
You can find this out on your own
It is possible to lay claim to an inheritance on a government website, after doing some research. Philip Davies (MP of the Conservative Party) said it was the responsibility of any public service organiser to clarify the amount of fees that the organisation can charge. He went on to say that the organiser should highlight government sources where such information could be acquired for free, so that the public doesn’t necessarily have to enlist the services of such companies.
Unclaimed estates are published by the Treasury Solicitor on a website, known as Bona Vacantia (the words are Latin, meaning “ownerless goods”). Basic information about the individual who passed away (name, where and when they passed away). However, their estate’s value or any other personal information is not provided.
Probate firms select an estate to investigate, before attempting to collate a family tree for the deceased and tracing relatives who could possibly be entitled. The recipient is then contacted by the firm and informed. The firm offers to file a claim on behalf of the relative and conveniently charges a fee that could go up to as high as 33% of the entitled amount. Since the industry is not regulated, there is no official benchmark rate. Furthermore there is no government body that an individual has recourse to if they believe that the amount charged by a probate firm was excessive.
Author – Jeffrey Avery