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At Issue

  • Estate Researchers
  • Heir Chasers
  • Heir Finders
  • Heir Hunters
  • Heir Location Services
  • Heir Locators
  • Heir Searchers
  • Heir Tracers
  • Probate Researchers

Problems Presented

The heirs of estates and trusts who are determined by reference to the state statute of descent and distribution have become the unfortunate targets of a class of entrepreneurial genealogists referred to as “heir hunters”. Without authority of the probate court or that of the fiduciary administering the estate, these heir hunters contact heirs as quickly as possible. Typically, before the fiduciary is able to locate the heirs, the heir hunters persuade them to sign contingent fee contracts assigning as much as 40 percent of the heir’s inheritance to the heir hunter (in most cases, the heir is not told of the decedent’s identity or given an accurate probable value of the inheritance). In exchange for this percentage, the heir hunter agrees to establish with the court the validity of the heir’s claim of inheritance at the heir hunter’s expense, including attorney fees.

A fiduciary who is duty bound to locate the heirs and, if necessary, authorize an investigator versed in forensic genealogy may not be able to fulfill their obligation to distribute the correct amount of inheritance due to interference by the heir hunters who for profit intentionally commit errors and omissions so as to thwart the fiduciary’s efforts in performance of their duties.

In effect, the heir hunter competes with the court and the fiduciary. Currently, there is no effective regulation of these heir hunters.

Solution Proposed

The Estate Planning, Trust and Probate Law Section Board recommends to the Heir Law Forum a proposal to add a new section to the states’ probate codes.

Laws permitting fiduciaries a reasonable period of time to find the heirs, beneficiaries, and devisees, including authorizing an investigator versed in forensic genealogy to assist in fulfilling the fiduciary’s obligation to conduct searches.

A fiduciary is duty bound to exercise reasonable diligence in an effort to locate the heirs and, if necessary, authorize an investigator or forensic genealogist who customarily works on either an hourly rate, time spent basis or for a percentage of the inheritance pursuant to agreed upon contingent fee contracts. This work by or for the fiduciary should be conducted as part of the estate administration, at a cost that would be less than the heir hunter’s percentage. Investigators or forensic genealogists who are authorized by fiduciaries are duty bound to provide their complete findings to the fiduciaries and the court.

PUBLIC POLICY IMPLICATION of proposed legislative changes: Protective statute(s) designed to assist consumers.  See Resolution.

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