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How is a Forensic Genealogist Different Than an Heir Searcher or a Private Investigator (P.I.)?

It may not be immediately clear what the difference is between these three job titles. Don't they all help attorneys locate missing and unknown heirs? How are they different? Which one should I hire to help me solve my probate or estate settlement case?

To clarify, let us address the definitions of each and then compare the similarities and difference between the three job titles.

A Forensic Genealogist is a professional genealogist who conducts family history research and uses genealogical records for legal purposes. One of the major specialties within Forensic Genealogy is that which deals with locating missing and unknown heirs for estate or probate cases.

An Heir Searcher is someone that works for an Heir Search Firm that often seek out heirs in order to sign them up with their company. By signing, the heirs typically have to give up a percentage of their share of the estate.

A Private Investigator is someone who is licensed and able to locate living individuals through various methods and databases, someone of which are only available because of the license they hold.

So how are they similar?

All three individuals can help locate missing and unknown heirs to one extent or another. They all have experience locating living individuals and have people-finding skills.

How are they different?

Forensic Genealogists are the only one of the three that are typically fully trained genealogists and who have extensive knowledge of how to use genealogical records to identify next-of-kin. So, they are the best individuals to locate unknown heirs - as identifying these people requires advanced genealogical skills. Also, because they are not paid on a contingency basis and have no stake in the outcome of the case, they are much more likely than an Heir Searcher to provide a through, accurate, and complete report. They do also have training that helps them locating living individuals, much like a Private Investigator, however, they do not have access to all of the databases regarding living people that a P.I. does.

Heir Searchers often have some genealogical training, but are not necessarily professional genealogists. Also, do their payment structure and the fact that they take a percentage of the heir's inheritance, they are not completely unbiased when it comes to the outcome of this case. For instance, the more heirs that do not sign up with them reduces their overall profit - so they are often less inclined to locate or disclose ALL heirs to an estate. They are also, typically not bound by the same ethical standards as professional forensic genealogists.

Private Investigators are very good at finding living people and if it is just an address or a phone number you need, they can most likely assist you. However, they are very rarely trained genealogists and are not who you need if there are or if there is a potential for their to be unknown heirs. They do not have access to the same genealogical resources or the experience dealing with genealogical records that a forensic genealogist has.

So who can best help me with my estate case when I have missing or unknown heirs?

If you are looking for thorough, professional, and unbiased researcher, your best bet is to locate a professional forensic genealogist to help you. They are dedicated to proving all of their work within the Genealogical Proof Standard and conduct exhaustive research to ensure you have the most accurate research. At the end of the day, if you chose to work with a forensic genealogist, you will feel confident that you have exhausted all avenues and located all heirs to the estate.

If you have any questions about locating missing or unknown heirs in your client’s estates, I would be more than happy to speak with you and help you locate them. Please feel free to email me at or click the following link to schedule a free phone consultation online today.

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