Probate, by nature, is not a simple process. The legal process of dividing assets per wills and state law is lengthy and can be considerably costly. In even the simplest of cases, this is a process that can extend for months and should the process have extenuating factors, such as a high net worth, it can become bitterly contested and can spread over decades. What, however, occurs when not all players within the case are present? What happens if they are not even made aware of the case occurring?
This might seem like an unrealistic situation, but the phenomenon of missing heirs is not nearly as rare as one might believe. There are many different cases where an heir who is owed a rightful portion of an inheritance is simply not present. In many cases, it can prove impossible for the present family members to get a hold of them. Perhaps they were orphaned at a young age or perhaps that are under disability.
Some probate cases will have the name of an heir but will have no information beyond that – no contact information, no location or any identifying factor. Other probate cases will only know which heirs that belong to a specific area of the family. There might be an entire branch of the family that is cut off – that would be legally owed part of the inheritance but which is completely unknown.
When this occurs, it might seem as if it is simply the end of the road. After all, if there are no records or contact information, it is a dead end, right? Wrong. There is actually an entire field known as probate research which works around-the-clock to locate these missing heirs and the next-of-kin. Commonly referred to as probate researchers, heir hunters / searchers and forensic genealogists, they can get involve in many different ways. In some cases, they will be hired by solicitors and in others they will run across the case independently before they decide to take it on.
Typically, probate researchers work on a contingency fee basis meaning that they do not recover any payment for their work unless that are successfully able to track down the missing heir. When they work on this basis, many will require the heir to sign an agreement that the researcher receives a portion of the inheritance. The amount of the inheritance given in payment will depend on the complexity of the case, the number of heirs that need to be found and the researcher in question, it can be as small as five percent or could even be half of the inheritance.
So how does a missing heir affect probate? Essentially, it is a time-consuming road block that can unfortunately leave an entire probate case stuck in limbo. While it might be tempting to jump straight into contacting a forensic genealogist to take on the case, those who are currently looking to track down missing heirs are cautioned to be careful about the probate researcher that they choose to work with.
While it might seem like a simple process, it has become a minefield rich with those who are looking to trick the innocent and look for "get rich quick" scams. Fueled by popular culture's focus on this field (such as the popular BBC show Heir Hunters), many have entered into the field hoping to hit it big. This has led to firms that charge exorbitant prices and require heirs to sign away considerable portions of their inheritance without fully explaining what exactly they are signing.
This, however, does not mean that every probate researcher is unscrupulous. Many have been involved in the field for decades and are passing on a legacy of finding missing heirs. For many, it is an honorable and challenging field. At the end of the day, the best way to know for sure that you're working with a reputable firm is simple: don't enter into it blind, do your research.