Anyone know anything about "probate genealogy"?
March 22, 2007 10:57 PM   Subscribe

A friend has been contacted by a private investigator who represents a "successional" or "probate" genealogist in Europe. I was very suspicious, perhaps because of the amount of entertaining Nigerian spam I've received, but at first glance things seem relatively legitimate. Is this a common thing, and what steps do one take to deal with it?

The private investigator has a bunch of correct information on my friend's family, hold a PI license that has not been the subject of any complaints, and as yet has not asked for any signatures or money.

Their Web site indicates that down the line they may ask for a "Disclosure of Inheritance and Rights Contract," after which they would explain the nature of the estate, and a power of attorney, presumably very limited, to deal with the estate.

It also indicates that they would probably take a fee of 35% before taxes on whatever estate they've discovered.

Is this sort of thing normal? Is such a fee common? Is there a place where one might look for a lawyer specializing in such things? I'd like to know if MeFiers have knowledge or experience of this sort of thing.
posted by lackutrol to Law & Government (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
on whatever estate they've discovered

Maybe I'm misunderstanding... someone has spontaneously contacted her, but doesn't represent any specific estate -- they contacted her and said "if you like, we can search around for estates that you might have some connection to"? That screams "scam".

Is it anything like this inheritance scam reported on Snopes?
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:24 PM on March 22, 2007

Response by poster: No, it's more like this part of the Snopes page: "There are also heir locators who freelance on a contingency basis, entering into agreements with those they connect with their rightful inheritances for percentages of sums so recovered."

The PI has a lot more information than just the last name as described in the Snopes page. If it's a scam it's not an obvious one. What I understand from the email and the little Web research I've done seems to indicate that the idea is that they would get their 35% fee after the estate was settled and wouldn't let my friend's family know any details about it until they signed a contract to that effect.
posted by lackutrol at 11:37 PM on March 22, 2007

ahh, the old "missing heir" service...
the trick here is to identify the unknown estate without paying a cut to this hustler. some genealogy of your own is indicated. to get in the right mood, read my favorite fictional treatment of this scenario, elmore leonard's "unknown man #89"
posted by bruce at 11:51 PM on March 22, 2007

Best answer: A few years ago I received one of these letters. It said that a relative had died and in return for 30% they would put me in touch with the estate. I hadn't heard of anyone in the family who'd died, but having said that, I wasn't close to anyone other than my only sibling and one aunt on my mother's side.

I'm a lawyer, and I spoke to someone in our Probate department who had heard of this company and said that they were legitimate.

So I signed the form and sent it back.

It turned out it that my paternal grandfather had been the oldest of 9 children, and this was one of his great-nephews who'd died, unmarried and without leaving a will. So it was necessary to trace all the relatives who might be entitled to a share of the estate.

I had no idea my grandfather had had any family (we never talked about such things, and he died when I was very young anyway) but I received a 'family tree' drawn up by the geneaologists showing all the relatives, including the guy who'd died. I hadn't heard of any of these apart from my dad's brother.

Anyway, once the modest house was sold and the estate distributed, I ended up with, I think, about £700. I used some of it to buy a beautiful Art Nouveau mantle clock so I'd have something lasting out of it. My sister used hers to customise her car interior with pink fur (sigh!).

The estate accounts showed that the geneology firm who traced me earned around £10,000 out of the estate. But I don't begrudge them it. They had to do a lot of work trading about 60 relatives through 9 strands of 3 or 4 generations (example: my sister and I were born in Australia, so they had to check records at Australia House in London and then obtain further details from the NSW authorities too).

If I hadn't sent the letter back, I would never have known who'd died or got any money at all. And I had no way of finding out, the family was so fragmented and I didn't even know all these cousins existed.

As bruce said, if you can identify the deceased yourself, then you can 'cut out the middleman' and contact the deceased's representative yourself (obituaries are good for this, the funeral home will know who is representing the estate because that's who'll pay them).

Also, it might be worth contacting a probate lawyer local to where these people are and just checking out that they are legit. It sounds to me as if it's not a scam, based on my own experience, but you're right to be cautious.
posted by essexjan at 1:43 AM on March 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

Essexjan's comment is great. I'd just add that as I understand it, these kinds of businesses have been going for years and some, at least, are legitimate.

My dad, who is a lawyer (as am I, but IANYL nor is he) once told me that his advice to clients who received one of these come-ons would be to investigate the matter themselves and not to pay up as "past consideration is no consideration" - in other words, you haven't, at this point, contracted with them to perform this service so you have no obligation to pay them for what they've already done, even if you end up recovering under this Will. In this glorious age of teh internets, it's easier to do the legwork yourself than ever before.

35% before taxes is a very hefty cut - in my european country at least, a distant relative inheriting may have a large tax exposure on the bequest (our rate until recently was 40%). As an heir, you shouldn't have to pay to inherit, unless it's worth it to you in terms of convenience. If it were me, I might well do what essexjan did, if preliminary searches revealed nothing. I might ask if they'd accept 20% after tax. You have options.
posted by tiny crocodile at 5:54 PM on March 23, 2007

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