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Neil Fraser

Partner, Fraser and Fraser

21st century genealogy tracing

21st century genealogy tracing


Societal shifts have made searching for beneficiaries more complicated, says Neil Fraser 

More than half of UK adults die intestate, according to recent estimates. There are also in excess of 8,300 entries currently on the bona vacantia (BV) list of unclaimed estates, which is updated daily by the government’s legal department. 
With those sorts of figures involved, tracking down missing beneficiaries is not always a straightforward task for solicitors. For example, we were recently approached by a solicitor after a well-established competitor firm of probate researchers had concluded there was no next of kin in a particular case and that it should be referred to BV.
As might be expected, the circumstances were complicated. Our researchers led us via Scotland and Germany to Belarus (formerly part of the USSR and, before that, the Russian Empire), where we tracked down the vital information which ultimately led us to five cousins of the deceased. These five individuals went on to share what was a seven-figure estate.
There were many aspects of this case that made it particularly satisfying, not least that we were able to prove that an estate that was seemingly destined for BV was not; and the knowledge we had ensured that the estate had been correctly administered in favour of the next of kin.
Importantly, this case also highlighted other ways in which the probate research market has changed in the 50-plus years that we have been in business (we celebrated our 50th anniversary in 2019). Societal shifts such as falling marriage rates, increasingly fractured families and a rise in people choosing to live far away from the areas, and even countries, where they grew up have all had an impact. 
And where once genealogists might have been generally looking for distant cousins, we often now find ourselves locating much more closely-related kin such as siblings, nephews, nieces – and even children of the deceased.

Technology has also played its part in many ways, making research quicker and easier. Often however, the real skill when using new tech is realising its limitations and understanding what it cannot do.

Particularly in more complicated cases, for example those involving families which are widely scattered, or where there are common surnames or an international element – or even all three – there is often no substitute for expert local knowledge and on-the-ground investigations. Lessons from Ireland Families with a link to Ireland are a case in point.

A challenging time period for genealogical researchers is Ireland in the mid nineteenth century. Following The Great Famine in Ireland (1845 to 1849) many people emigrated; state registration of births, marriages, and deaths had not yet started; and records kept by the Roman Catholic Church are incomplete or lost completely. 

Factor in surnames that may have been misspelt or copied down incorrectly, as well as a further loss of any records that did exist during the uprising of 1916, and it is easy to see that the most effective route can be for an expert researcher physically to check church and parish records by hand.


We find thousands of missing relatives every year for solicitor clients but we also arrange missing beneficiary indemnity insurance from a number of providers. This can be especially useful in complicated cases and guards against a beneficiary, such as a known family member who cannot be traced or an unknown family member not identified through research, coming forward after the distribution of an estate and giving rise to a dispute in future. 

In a similar vein, another service that has proved popular with our solicitor clients in recent years is our free family tree check. This provides another way to protect against unknown beneficiaries appearing when least expected, bringing with them additional work and costs.

All that is needed for this is the information that’s already been obtained about the deceased’s family. We then check through before highlighting any areas that we believe require more detailed research and documentation. We will also recommend any additional areas of research that we feel are necessary to identify and locate additional unknown beneficiaries.

In some instances, solicitors may find themselves working on cases where the deceased has neither made a will nor has any obvious relatives. Before anyone refers such an estate to the government legal department, it is worthwhile to make absolutely sure there are no next of kin who have a prior claim. You can do this through our administrator search service on the basis that if we can’t find a suitable personal representative, then no fees apply.

On these occasions, our aim is to locate a relative who is willing and able to act as a personal representative. It is also worth noting that more than 90 per cent of the administrators we locate go on to instruct our solicitor clients. However, if the personal representative we find chooses not to do so, we will not charge a fee.

People are now more likely to find a new life in other countries, and their assets are also more likely to be located in a variety of territories. In response to this development, the firm is a certified guarantor of the official Securities Transfer Agents Medallion Program. This means we are particularly well placed to work on estates that have links to the US or Canada. 

It is especially useful in dealing with estates that include shares in former UK firms that were bought out by US organisations (Kraft’s purchase of Cadbury in 2010 is a prime example).

Throughout our dealings with our solicitor clients we are acutely aware that each case is unique, providing different levels of challenge and complexity, so a method of fee charging that is suitable for one may not be right for another. 

In some cases, for example, we offer research on a ‘time spent’ basis that can provide a straightforward way to monitor costs incurred by an estate.

Alternatively, we may agree a fixed-fee arrangement, by which we work out a cost based on the complexity of the research required according to the information that has been provided by our client. Again, this provides a good route in terms of planning and budgeting estate costs. 

Alternatively, we can provide a beneficiary contingency arrangement. This would be suitable in cases either where there are known heirs already represented, or no known heirs and no authorities appointed. 

In such cases, the fee would be paid through an agreement with the beneficiaries we trace via a share of their entitlement when the estate is distributed. In such circumstances, known heirs are protected from having to pay to find unknown beneficiaries and, if we are unable to find the beneficiaries, there is no fee to be paid. 

One other option is payment via a finder’s fee contingency, under which we would be instructed to find missing heirs irrespective of whether or not their place on the family tree is known. Under this method, which requires an executor, administrator or trustee, known heirs are again protected from incurring any research fees that may not yield results.  

Neil Fraser is a partner at probate researchers Fraser and Fraser