This guide explains the ins and outs of forensic genealogy research – also commonly referred to as probate, heir or estate research, and how a forensic genealogist can help you.
What is probate research?
Each state has a court that handles probate and the process varies by state. In New York, the probate process takes place in Surrogate’s Court; in Pennsylvania, probate is handled in Orphans’ Court and in Florida, one would need to file probate in Circuit Court. Determining the correct court can usually be established by an internet search, calling the town or county clerk or by contacting a probate attorney in your area. Some estates, based on their value, do not need to be probated or can be handled by an informal probate. To be sure that you are following the correct process, it is important to either consult a legal expert or receive guidance from the appropriate court clerk.
Some assets such as those owned by more than one party as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, or transfer on death, or those with named beneficiaries may transfer outside the probate process. An estate is considered testate if the decedent had a valid will. A will is used to leave instructions for what will happen to your assets after your death. It can also be used to name an executor of your estate or name a guardian for your children. In contrast, if there is no will, the estate is referred to as intestate. In intestate cases, each state has laws that prescribe the intestate succession. Basically, these laws explain exactly who is entitled to inherit your property.
How can a forensic genealogist help?
Forensic genealogy is genealogical research conducted for the purpose of assisting in legal matters. A forensic genealogist can be invaluable in the probate process. In testate cases, there are several reasons research might be required. The estate might not be able to locate an heir named in the will. For example, John Jones might leave his assets to his niece, Alice Wilson. There may be no other identifying information in the will. A forensic genealogist will analyze the family relationships; identify the siblings of John Jones and search for nieces and nephews until Alice Wilson is both identified and located. In addition, in many states, even if the decedent has left a valid will, the estate must notify the potential heirs at law that the probate process has begun. Basically, those who would have inherited if there was no will must have the opportunity to contest, or challenge, the will; the court may require notification of the family members who would have inherited under intestate succession that the process to administer the estate has begun. In many cases, the beneficiary under the will does not know every member of the decedent’s family. A decedent may have left their estate to a trusted friend, a distant cousin or even a charity. The executor of the estate may be required to submit proof to the court that all parties have received the appropriate notification. A forensic genealogist can prepare a report outlining a due diligence search for the family members who would have been potential intestate heirs based on the appropriate state’s intestate succession law.
Understanding Intestate Succession
Intestate estates require the same due diligence search of the family, but for slightly different reasons. Without a will, the heirs of the estate will be determined according to law. Who inherits, and at what percentages, varies by state. However, in most states, surviving spouses, children and grandchildren are the first considered. After that, the court usually recognizes parents, siblings, grandparents and then descendants of the grandparents.
So why would you need a forensic genealogist? In some cases, the decedent is estranged from his/her family and the person, or governmental entity, that is handling the estate has no knowledge of the extended family structure. There are also cases where the decedent had remained in contact with one branch of the family but had lost track of other relatives. The court may also demand an impartial examination of the entire family structure to ensure that legal proceedings distribute assets correctly.
Forensic research employs the same methods and standards as any other genealogical research. The research meets the genealogical proof standard; it is reasonably exhaustive, has complete citations, includes a thorough analysis, resolves any conflicts and is soundly written based on the evidence.
Forensic genealogy research is different
Traditional genealogy research usually begins with the client or his/her ancestor and works back in time to discover earlier generations. Forensic research begins with the decedent. As forensic genealogists, we examine the immediate family including spouses, children, grandchildren, siblings and parents. If no potential heirs at law are yet found, we continue back to the grandparents and then research their descendants until all possible potential heirs at law, according to the laws of succession for the appropriate state, have been identified. As forensic genealogists, we employ census records, probate records, obituaries, newspapers and vital records such as birth and death certificates; the same records used in any other genealogical research. However, as forensic genealogists, we also search a host of more current records as well. These additional sources might include social media, public record databases, property assessment databases, records of arrests and inmate locators, and community and club newsletters. Sometimes we need to be creative in finding sources that will reveal family relationships.
It is important to recognize that we, as forensic genealogists, are not licensed private investigators. Private investigators are often employed to find missing, but known, individuals. They use skills, techniques and proprietary and/or legally protected data to find a person who has been previously identified. As forensic genealogists, we use publicly available and not legally protected records to research families. Forensic genealogical research defines relationships, uncovers unknown heirs and provides biographical data needed to locate and contact interested parties.
Hiring a forensic research firm you can trust
In contracting for forensic genealogical research, one should be aware of the differences between the scope of forensic and traditional research. Two important points to consider are the goals and the deliverables. In traditional research, the goals are often a want rather than a need. One might want to identify a great-grandfather or a point of origin for the family. However, a project can be considered successful if it has progressed the research, even if it has not yet met the ultimate goal.
In forensic research, the needs of the estate or court must be fully met. It is not sufficient to identify most of the potential heirs at law; research must continue until all needed individuals have been identified or the most diligent search possible has been completed. In most cases, a simple report will not meet the requirements of the court. As the information found during research will likely be formally submitted to the court, forensic deliverables include an affidavit. An affidavit is a form of written testimony. As forensic genealogists, we prepare a carefully constructed narrative that is fully supported by exhibited documentation and then declare that the report constitutes the researcher’s sworn testimony by signing the report in front of a notary. This document can be submitted to the court as impartial testimony on the relationships affecting the inheritance of the decedent’s assets.
It is important to note that forensic genealogists make no statements about who will ultimately inherit, who is a legal heir or who will actually receive money. That authority rests solely with the court. Our role, as forensic genealogists, is to provide the information necessary for the court to make informed rulings on the distribution of assets. Probate cases can be complex; the seeking of legal advice is always important and recommended. However, the use of forensic genealogists can be a vital tool in providing an unbiased understanding of the familial relationships needed in the probate process to ultimately achieve a successful outcome. For more information, review our Forensic & Probate Research FAQs.
As a probate research firm, our forensic genealogists are experienced at providing expert genealogical research, analysis and reporting for legal proceedings involving kinship. If you need help identifying potential heirs, please contact us and we can help evaluate your specific circumstances and identify how we can be of assistance.
 Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, fiftieth-anniversary edition (Nashville, TN: Ancestry, 2014), 1–3.