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Frequently Asked Questions About Forensic Genealogy

What is a Forensic Genealogist?
A Forensic Genealogist is trained to undertake research on identity and kinship of persons with a special focus on finding living descendants, typically undertaken to resolve legal ownership of property. Clients receive a formal report or an affidavit in recordable form along with original documents and complete source citations in accordance with the Genealogical Proof Standard.
Who uses a Forensic Genealogist?
1. People who are working to settle an estate of a decedent - when heirs are unknown or when named beneficiaries are deceased or unknown
  • Executors and Administrators of Estates (usually Probate attorneys, but can be individuals)
  • Trustees (can be individuals) and Bank Officers
  • Insurance Companies
  • Personal Representatives (could be an attorney or an individual)
  • Court Appointed Attorneys ad litem representing unknown heirs
2. Real Estate and Quiet Title Actions, Mineral Rights)
Identifying and locating unknown owners or their heirs to remove a cloud on title (target market):
  • Real Estate Attorneys
  • Title Companies
  • Mortgage Companies
  • Property Owners – those who inherited real property without clear title
  • Buyers of Abandoned property
  • Mineral Owners
Immigration - Proof of citizenship through relative – need to prove next of kin
Children of US Citizen born abroad who have citizenship issues
Contested Guardianship issues – need to prove next of kin or closest kin
Dual Citizenship – persons wanting to acquire dual citizenship for European Union access (currently only available for Irish or Italian descendants, through grandparent)
How many hours are typically involved, and how long does it take to complete a project?
A typical project usually averages around 35 hours to complete, and depending on the length of time it takes to locate, order and receive original documents such as birth or death records, can usually be completed in 6 to 8 weeks from the time work starts on the project. Most projects average under $4500 in billed hours and less than $200 in expenses, for a total bill of less than $5000.
Why hire a Forensic Genealogist instead of an Heir-Search Firm?
Save your client money. Heir search firms typically work on a contingent basis and take between 25-50% of an estate while forensic genealogists are ethically prohibited from charging contingent fees. In most jurisdictions it is against public policy to allow an expert witness to testify who is paid on a contingent basis, precluding the researcher from testifying in regard to his own work. A typical case averages around 35 billable hours (at $125/hour that's $4375) and less than $200 in expenses (excluding expert witness fees) for a total bill of well under $5000. Compared to paying 25% or more of an estate to an Heir-Search firm, it's a bargain.
Other reasons to avoid Heir Search Firms include:
  • You are hiring a firm, not a specific individual whose background is known to you.
  • They often have no source citations or supporting documents in their reports.
  • They have no motivation to do a thorough search to find all the heirs because they get paid the same whether they find one heir or twenty.
  • Charging a contingency fee means they are no longer a disinterested third party, as they then have a stake in the outcome.
  • An expert witness hired on a contingent fee basis is subject to impeachment on cross-examination due to his or her bias or interest in the outcome of the case. It is against public policy in nearly every jurisdiction in America to charge a contingency fee when the researcher may be called as an expert witness to explain or defend their findings.
Why would you hire someone who cannot be called as an expert witness?
This case is an example of why you want to avoid heir search firms.
Why hire a Forensic Genealogist instead of a private detective?
Save your client money. A private detective is trained to find known living persons, but a genealogist is trained to research a family tree to identify unknown heirs, and then locate them. Private detectives also typically charge much higher hourly fees at $200/hour or more.
Why hire a Forensic Genealogist instead of a landman?
Landmen are rarely trained genealogists and typically rely on acquiring an Affidavit of Heirship from a family member. Family members are rarely a disinterested third party with no stake in the determination of kinship, making the use of such an Affidavit inadmissible in court. Forensic genealogists are trained, affordable, and disinterested third parties. If your case involves distribution of oil and gas mineral rights, I have over eight years of experience as an oil and gas title attorney. Oil and gas rights cases require more research if title is being run along with the family tree, so average closer to 60-80 hours to complete depending on the complexity of the case. If you already have a landman working on your project but he's stuck on an "heirs of X" problem, then contact me to finish up the family tree with a forensic report.
What is the Genealogical Proof Standard?
Ms. Smiths' clients receive formal reports or affidavits with accompanying exhibits for each statement of fact. She relies on the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) as set out by The Board for the Certification of Genealogists
The Genealogical Proof Standard consists of:
  1. Reasonably exhaustive research
  2. Complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item
  3. Tests – through processes of analysis and correlation – of all sources, information items, and evidence
  4. Resolution of conflicts among evidence items
  5. Soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion
Trained genealogists know that before any proper research can take place, the research subject must be fully identified within the context of his birth family. Parents and siblings must be determined before research can be undertaken on the correct person; otherwise many hours can be wasted tracing the wrong person's descendants.