How to locate a lost relative.
July 10, 2013 8:12 AM   Subscribe

I recently found out my deceased Father had a daughter from a previous relationship. I know her maiden name, but not much else. Should I hire a private investigator or will an online "people finder" suffice?

Lastly, if I hire a private investigator, how much should I expect to pay? And if I decide to use an online service, any recommendations on which one to use would be highly appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm an attorney, and I have experience finding people. (Obviously, none of this is legal advice. Consult licensed counsel in your jurisdiction for that. I'm almost certainly not licensed where you live.) I have used those online services, and I've worked with private investigators.

I can't tell you how much to expect to pay a PI because I don't know where you're located, and in my experience location matters on that point. Obviously, a PI will cost significantly more. Consequently, depending on your budget it might be worthwhile to try an online database first. It's hard to tell people how to spend their money, and everybody's circumstance is different; but generally speaking, if you're in a financial position to consider hiring a private investigator, then you can probably afford to risk throwing away the cost of checking an online database.

If you know the person's full name (maiden counts) and date of birth, you have a very, very good starting point. Even an approximate age or date of birth is tremendously useful. If you also know her place of birth, or if you can identify one place she's lived during her life...then in my experience, you probably have enough to find the person without seeing the far end of the spectrum, which is investing a lot of money in a very serious investigation.

It's hard to recommend a specific course of action without knowing a little more. I've used several services with good results; if you choose one of the mainstream services, you're generally in good hands. I will add that sometimes the data has minor flaws. Have you ever used Google Maps and discovered that Google thinks the building is a quarter-mile south from where it really is? That's similar to the type of thing I've encountered. In other words, sometimes the data doesn't lead you exactly to the answer, but close enough that you can connect the last dot on your own.

It's also worth knowing that those databases are updated irregularly. If you try a search today and you're able to find where she was two years ago but then the trail goes cold, and you don't have the knowledge or resources to complete the circle, don't assume that's the end forever. In another six months or two years, the same search might yield a new result.

Lastly, I can tell you that in a scenario with less information a PI would begin by asking you a lot of questions, and you might be able to make progress by asking yourself those questions. How did you learn about your half-sister, is the big one. Who told you, and how do they know? Make a list of the individual facts you know, and then trace each backward to its source. If you know the time period, where was your father living and working, and with whom? If you know your sister's maiden name, maybe you know something about her mother or family. Basically you work your way backward to somebody who can give you information that allows you to work forward. It's a V-shape. In this day and age that isn't usually necessary to just find somebody's address, but it still happens. Not everybody is on the grid.

Good luck. I have family out there somewhere, so I can empathize.
posted by cribcage at 9:21 AM on July 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

If her name is, say, Jane Smith, then an online people finder will not be useful. If, on the other hand, she has a much more unusual name then it's worth a try using her maiden name. I would exhaust all the free online search tools before resorting to detectives, unless there is something urgent happening here, like a need for bone marrow or something. Also try, you can probably use it at your local public library if you're in the US. Cribcage is right, info comes and goes, keep checking.

More questions:
Her mother's name?
Did this half-sister have your father's name as her maiden name? Were he and her mother married and divorced?
posted by mareli at 10:27 AM on July 10, 2013

We tend to focus on databases for things like this, and some of the best information isn't written down at all. If you can establish a timeframe (such as between his turning 13 and your birth), you can try to find people who knew him then. Ask people you know about friends and neighbors he mentioned, etc. It is very possible one of them will have a great memory (they're more common than people realize) and be able to give you more information. Use that to further remind other people you've talked with, etc. I'm not saying they'll put you in touch with her, but you might find enough to actually use a database then.

In my case, it was finding my grandfather's father. I had to track down the descendants of his elder sibling just to find someone who knew a 'legend' and had a surname. That name happened to appear in one database record, so I was able to fit the legend to people and figured out the whole story. I'd spent a decade trying to figure it out via databases, and it took about a week with the people route.

For what its worth, since you are looking at the male line for now deceased people, don't forget the wives of people you come up with (his friends, neighbors, etc.). Women tend to live longer than men, etc.
posted by jwells at 11:36 AM on July 10, 2013

Check your public library and, if you have one nearby, a public law library. Sometimes they will have access to databases of public records information that you can use for free with a library card. Just ask someone at the reference desk for what resources they have available and they can walk you through it. I second cribcage in saying that it will be very helpful if you can figure out a date of birth (even just the year would be useful, or a range of years) and a place where she might have lived as an adult.

(This is presuming she's in the US. If she's not in the US, you have IMO much less of a chance of finding her without paying someone to look into it, because most other countries have drastically more privacy protections on this sort of information.)
posted by marginaliana at 11:41 AM on July 10, 2013

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