Probate Genealogy: An Intriguing Field of Research

Professional genealogy is a diverse field that includes a wide variety of unique specialties from adoption to genetics, cartography, photographic analysis, military, migration, religious groups, ethnic groups, and many more. One of the lesser known specialties is probate genealogy

Probate is the legal process through which an individual’s real estate (property) and personal estate (possessions) is distributed to his or her heirs, regardless of whether there is a will.

Testate is the term used when a will existed in the settling of the estate. Intestate is the term used where there was no will written and the court decides how the estate is to be distributed. 

According to one recent survey, 68% of Americans do not have a will.

So what happens when a deceased person leaves behind an inheritance? First, we all know that families can be complicated and locating the rightful heirs to an estate can be an equally complicated process. 

Before any person’s assets are distributed, estate executors, administrators, trustees, fiduciaries, and bank and trust officers will generally hire an expert to help conduct probate research.  

Probate research might involve:  

  • Finding a missing executor(s) named in a will.
  • Tracing named heirs, when their location is known or unknown.
  • Addressing official and unofficial adoptions. (When a child is officially adopted, their new family becomes their next of kin. However, when an adoption is informal and undocumented, the birth family remains the next of kin as far as intestate inheritance is concerned.)
  • Finding rightful heirs and next of kin when there are no known heirs or the person died intestate. This includes identifying each living relative. 
  • Confirming or denying the existence of suspected or possible other heirs. This might include children born out of wedlock.  
  • Finding missing documents, like a birth certificate.

Probate Genealogy

Probate genealogy, also commonly referred to as “heir hunting,” is the practice of investigating family trees, finding heirs, and proving their right to an inheritance. 

Probate genealogists are professional forensic researchers. They are responsible for: (1) identifying rightful heirs; (2) preparing required documents, including An Affidavit of Diligent Search for Kinship, a Narrative Report of Kinship, and family tree charts; (3) collecting sworn affidavits; and (4) providing expert testimony, if needed.

Probate genealogists work on both testate and intestate estate matters. Probate genealogists may also assist clients, estate planners, financial institutions, and private companies with heir searches as part of the will and estate planning process.

In the process of their research, probate genealogists comb through and identify many of the same types of documents persons doing family research will discover: birth, death, and marriage certificates, real estate and property tax records, military records, residency, employment, civil actions, immigration, etc. 

However, probate genealogy is a precise science. Each project undergoes a stringent review process and is meticulously checked for accuracy in research and presentation. There are no “do-overs” when it comes to the legal distribution of a person’s estate. Because accuracy is of the utmost importance, reputable probate genealogists generally carry $2-5 million dollars in professional liability insurance against errors and omissions. 

Depending on the scope of the search, an investigation can take a few days, weeks or sometimes months. 

Probate research is an expanding field. As the population lives longer, people become more mobile, and there are changes in family structures and dynamics, the challenge of tracing missing heirs becomes more difficult. This creates an increased demand for probate genealogists. 

Probate genealogists typically have four-year college degrees in Family History and Genealogy, have genealogy accreditations, are knowledgeable about probate laws (which vary widely among states), and have extensive experience and a passion for genealogy research. 


Quick & Legal Will Book, Ninth Edition, by Attorney Denis Clifford
Make Your Own Living Trust, by Attorney Denis Clifford
Peace of Mind Planner: Important Information about My Belongings, Business Affairs, and Wishes

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