What is an estate settlement search and who/why would require one?
An estate settlement search is often required when someone dies without a will or sometimes with a will that omits the mention of any family members. A court will usually appoint an administrator to learn the identity and location of any and all living heirs.
The search for heirs is required so that the courts can determine the appropriate distribution of the decedent’s estate. Each state has its own laws about who can inherit from an estate. In most states, living heirs can include parents, siblings, aunts & uncles, first cousins, nieces & nephews, children, and grandchildren of the decedent.
Why is a genealogist needed?
The appointed administrator is often represented by an attorney, and a genealogy has already been ordered by the court. A professional genealogist is hired to conduct the research to determine all of the living heirs, and the genealogist’s report is presented to all attorneys (some known heirs also have their own attorneys) and to the court.
The report is often presented at a court session where the credentials of the genealogist are reviewed. Any of the attorneys involved may contest the credentials of the genealogist, but the acceptance of the genealogist is the decision of the court.
Does a genealogist require specific accreditation to conduct the search?
Each court has the discretion of setting its own standards for the requirements to be considered an “expert” in the field of genealogy. The standard that is often used is the passing of a certification test (BCG – Board Certified Genealogist; or AG – Accredited Genealogist) or proof of education in genealogy. As one with a PLCGS credential (Professional Learning Certificate in Genealogical Studies), Our estate settlement genealogy specialist has been accepted by the court in Buffalo, NY.
The PLCGS requires 40 separate classes based on genealogy over a 4-year period. The BCG and the AG do not require any education at all, just the passing of a test. As most cases do not require a genealogist to testify, however we have sent our specialist to testify if ordered by court.
Other than a genealogist who else can do such a search?
Anyone can do the search, but the court will generally require the report of a professional genealogist. Prior to having my credentials, I often participated in the research phase for estate settlements, but the report was prepared by a credentialed researcher.
What challenges does a genealogist face when conducting a search?
There are a few challenges. The biggest challenge is obtaining the needed records. The genealogy must be proven with evidence, and this usually requires obtaining the birth, marriage, and death records of every heir, and the records must be certified original records, not copies.
Many states restrict access to these records because the person is still living or the event was too recent, and so, the record is restricted for privacy reasons. When this occurs, we must rely on the individual to retrieve the record and provide it to us.
If we are not able to retrieve the actual record, we must resort to alternate records to prove a birth, marriage, or death – such as newspaper announcements (obituary, birth announcement, or marriage announcement). We also use census records to show parentage. Other public documents, such as land records, probate records, and cemetery records, are also used when necessary to prove family relationships.
Another challenge sometimes encountered is the client who doesn’t understand the amount of work involved in researching the decedent’s genealogy. The client believes he paid for 10 hours, and everything should be completed and ready for the court within that 10 hours.
That seldom happens, and the client may begin to decline authorizing further research, and then the report is prepared with what we have, but the report clearly states that the research is incomplete because the client has declined further research.
A third challenge is not knowing when or where a particular event occurred. For example, we need to prove “Aunt Susie’s” marriage, but no one knows when or where she got married or who she married, except that her name was different at death than when she was born.
So, a massive search begins to find this marriage record, and numerous hours can be used just searching for this one record.
What is the basic process of conducting a search?
Once we’ve had a chance to review the case, we usually begin with the decedent, and the client is asked to provide us with any information, documents or evidence already in possession that would help with creating a family tree.
Quite often the client is able to provide us with known family members’ names, etc. even though they may have no documents. Information is just as helpful as documents. After receiving all information and documents from the client, we begin creating the family tree.
We must research back to the decedent’s grandparents to learn who the parents and aunts & uncles were of the decedent. Each aunt and uncle must be researched to learn who the first cousins are. You always want to make sure all parties are identified for the estate settlement.
The decedent’s siblings are researched, as well as their children, to learn who the nieces & nephews are. And then, the same is done with the decedent’s children and grandchildren. Evidence of the birth, marriage, and death (if deceased) are required on every individual in the tree.
If deceased, an obituary is necessary (if one can be found) to provide evidence of living family members. The larger the family, the more research that is needed. After all research is complete and all documents/evidence received, a report is then prepared for the court.
This report is different from the usual genealogy report prepared for a family history. This report must meet court standards, and requires additional time for preparation. A special documents report must also be prepared to submit the documents into evidence.
If you have a questions pertaining to your estate settlement, also know as probate be sure to get in contact with us so that we can help start the process. Many instances, time or resources are limited to starting quickly will make sure proper timelines are met.