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It's A Matter Of Facts

by Tim Rodenbush

By Tim Rodenbush Email:

Though it is not commonly known, a worldwide heir search industry exists consisting of individual heir tracers and genealogical search firms to meet the requirements of Probate Attorneys and Trust Officers in their need to find missing heirs and beneficiaries.

Professional search firms are many and varied but can be categorized into two main types by how they structure their fees. Percentage Based search firms offer as one of their fee choices to negotiate a contract with the heirs for a fee based on a percentage of the heir’s share due. In contrast Non-Percentage Based firms never base their fees upon a percentage of the estate or the missing heir’s portion.

Percentage Based Search Firms aka "Heir Hunters"

When windfall profits may be available, it should not be surprising that numerous individuals and firms exist who will agree to involve themselves in your search with their compensation being arranged between themselves andthe missing heirs after they have completed their search. This method of compensation is often referred to in their advertising as "no fee to the estate" or they recommend an "independent search with a contingency fee". The percentag eapproach to locating missing heirs is the most common you will encounter when dealing without side sources. In some circumstances, as soon as public record information is filed relating to an intestate estate, a percentage based heir search firm may begin their search to "get there first" without prior knowledge of the Probate Attorney or Trust Officer. Once the heirs are located, negotiated fees vary, between 20% and 50% of the heir’s inheritance.

This method of compensation and involvement is not without controversy. Many in the legal field are of the opinion that the withholding of information concerning the inheritance from the heir, until a contract with the heir is consummated, puts the heir at a distinct disadvantage. The details about the estate and the amount of the inheritance are not disclosed to the heir until after the percentage contract is signed. In fact, many ethics opinions state that these are champertous contracts. There tends to be considerable competition in the heir hunter segment of the industry from the standpoint of each firm "getting there first" to negotiate an agreement with the missing heirs. That is why many firms start a search without your authorization, as soon as they have any information about the missing heirs.

Non-Percentage Based Search Firms

Not all search firms offer their services with their fees being determined on a percentage basis through negotiations with the missing heirs.Although they are in a minority, the fees are based on a schedule of charges based upon the nature of the search required and the information available, never on the size of the trust or estate. Flat fees can either be taken from the heir’s share due or from the estate, which is determined in advance and usually authorized by the court. Anon-percentage based search firm never offers to negotiate a contract with the heirs for a percentage of their share due. Be sure that these firms have an excellent success rate, a guarantee of no fees due if unsuccessful, quality references, domestic and international experience and of course have a well-insured errors and omissions insurance policy.

Who Should Pay to Find Them?

Every case and every situation is different. At times you may choose the search fees to be taken from the heir’s share due and at other times it may make more sense that the search fees be a general estate expense. We believe that wherever you choose the fees to be levied, they should be fair and reasonable and non-percentage based. We understand your fiduciary responsibility in acting in the best interest of the heirs/estate – after all it is their money you are spending. You have the choice in the type of firm with which to associate the heirs and yourself. By selecting a search firm carefully and without unnecessary delays you can protect everyone’s best interests.