When and why you should call in the professionals to trace missing beneficiaries?
Simon Barber, Operations Manager at Title Research explores when and why you should call in the professionals to locate missing beneficiaries and discusses the use of missing beneficiary indemnity policies to supplement research.
What does a probate genealogist do?
Quite simply, a probate genealogist traces missing heirs to estates. These heirs could be due to benefit from an intestate estate and unknown at the time of instruction, or perhaps named in a Will that was made many years ago and includes out of date details. The probate genealogist will use a comprehensive range of records and databases to locate the missing person including birth, marriage and death records, census returns and the electoral roll. Geographic mobility frequently means that we are carrying out research in overseas jurisdictions, and whilst each territory has its own unique challenges, there are now very few parts of the world which are ‘off limits’ to research.
Beneficiaries on Intestacy
A professional genealogist should be able to commence work when provided with only minimal information. Usually, a death certificate is sufficient to begin reconstructing a family tree given that it provides the name (and maiden surname of a married woman) and date and place of birth. Using these details, the genealogist will be able to obtain the birth certificate and develop the entire family tree from there until the entitled individuals are identified and subsequently located.
Named beneficiaries in a Will
At other times, we are approached by clients who need to locate a named individual remembered in the Will of the deceased. Frequently, these Wills are written many years before the death of the Testator and a beneficiary may have moved several times since that date. Using the resources at our disposal, Title Research enjoy a high success rate (97%) in locating people across the globe.
Missing Beneficiary Insurance
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, an individual, or line of a family, cannot be traced. Often this is because they leave the UK for an unknown overseas destination and, without knowing where they may have settled, speculative research is not possible. In these instances, our reports are accepted by insurers in order to obtain missing beneficiary indemnity insurance to protect the Executor or Personal Representative against any claims being brought against them in the future. It is worth noting that a missing beneficiary indemnity policy is often required as a condition of a Bond of Caution being issued in Scotland.
It should be noted that missing beneficiary insurance is not considered to be an alternative to professional research. This is a mistake that was infamously made in the well documented case of Evans v Westcombe, although at the time a missing beneficiary indemnity policy could be obtained without any prior research, something which rarely happens today.
In that case, an intestacy had arisen and the statutory next of kin was in the class of the deceased’s issue, one of whom (the son, David), was missing and was asserted by his sister to have died. At that time, in 1999, the sister was able to obtain a missing beneficiary indemnity policy and four years later, the son emerged to claim his inheritance.
Following the case of Evans v Westcombe, underwriters are on record as stating that ‘a missing beneficiary indemnity policy is meant not as an expedient alternative to taking proper reasonable steps to try and find lost heirs, but as a last resort where all else has failed’.
This case identifies the importance of checking the family tree information supplied by your client to minimise the risk of future claims. Had the family tree been checked in this instance, David would have been found to be alive and would have received his rightful inheritance four years earlier.
Why can’t I obtain missing beneficiary insurance without prior research?
Often, an Executor or Personal Representative will suggest that missing beneficiary insurance is obtained instead of making attempts to locate a missing person. However as mentioned, insurers in recent years have become much more cautious and are no longer willing to accept risks without research being undertaken by a professional genealogist first (See Evans v Westcombe above). This is also partly due to the growth in interest of family history which has resulted in many more people researching their family trees which could uncover claimants in the future. The quantity and quality of records available to undertake this work continues to increase and most are now searchable online in some form. Also, anyone administering an estate has a duty (both morally and legally) to locate all the entitled parties and account to them for their share of the estate.
Why verify a family tree?
Frequently we are asked to verify family trees prepared by family members. Often, as expected, we return the same information that was originally provided. However, the value of verification work should not be judged on the (often limited) quantity of extra information that arises from it. Rather, the value of a professional verification resides in the Personal Representatives being able to proceed towards distribution with far greater confidence. There are of course instances where we uncover a potential heir who was unknown to the family, or prove that a person previously believed to be entitled is in fact not relevant. In these cases we have saved the Personal Representative from a potential mis-distribution.
What if I don’t use a professional genealogist and it all goes wrong?
We would always recommend to clients that family trees are professionally verified and that all events are documented. A professional firm will always make sure that the identity of each located heir is verified and their relationship to the deceased is confirmed. This ensures that only entitled persons are included in the distribution. Common mistakes include not confirming an adoption, including half blood relatives and missing off illegitimate children. All of these can be avoided by proper and thorough verification thus avoiding complications and claims against the Personal Representatives post-distribution.
Author: Simon Barber, Operations Manager, Title Research Tel: 0345 87 27 600 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The material contained in this article is issued by Zurich and does not establish, report or create the standard of care for solicitors, nor does it represent a complete analysis of the topics presented or constitute legal advice. It is intended to highlight issues which may be of interest to our customers. Readers should conduct their own appropriate research on how to act in any particular case.