18 Feb 2013
An insider’s guide to genealogy fees
In this article I'm going to look at the various fee structures employed by probate genealogists and discuss their advantages and disadvantages. I'll also try to explain why genealogists can sometimes be rather too vague for your liking about costs.
As a professional genealogist for over 16 years, I have to admit that there are times when I really, hand on heart, cannot say how many hours a case will take to resolve. Yes, I’ve seen hundreds of family trees but I’ve never seen the one that’s just landed on my desk. And all my experience cannot tell me what the names on the tree will do with their lives, or rather, what they did with their lives. Obviously, there are clues that help us come up with a likely fee, and the experience of countless previous cases will help as make an accurate assessment as possible, but we can never be completely certain.
Let’s take the example of Amy Shufflebotham, a maternal aunt of the deceased, born in London in 1900. Such an unusual name shouldn’t cause too many research problems. However, when research reveals that Miss Shufflebotham married John Smith in 1924 and had 11 children, four of whom removed to “the colonies”, the project becomes much more complicated.
The point I’m trying to make is that the genealogist is, for sound reasons, very wary of the unknown and this is why they are sometimes hard to pin down on costs.
When it comes to fee options, leaving aside the contingency approach, the ins and outs of which I won’t get into here, there are three main options:
Time and expenses fees
The traditional alternative to the contingency fee approach. The genealogist suggests an initial working budget based on their experience and the clues they have to hand; the age of the deceased, commonness of the surnames, anecdotal information etc. They charge by the hour and report back to you on the conclusion or the maximum progress achieved within the agreed budget.
The appeal for you is that you pay only for what you get; if the work is completed twice as quickly as expected, you pay half the fee. For their part, the genealogist doesn’t have to worry that they will be out of pocket if the family turns out to be huge and dispersed throughout the globe.
The downside for you is that there sometimes seems to be no end in sight, with the genealogist repeatedly requesting extensions to the working budget.
If you are worried about costs spiralling, you might like the idea of agreeing a fixed fee. The appeal is obvious: you know at the outset exactly what you are going to pay and, furthermore, you know you won’t pay if success is not achieved.
However, be aware: you might end up paying much more than you would have on a time and expenses basis. When calculating their fixed fee, the genealogist has to be cautious, factoring in the possibility that all sorts of complications will arise in the research. Of course, not all cases are complicated and you could end up paying for straightforward research at what amounts to a horrifying hourly rate.
With this approach you get all the benefits of fixed fee i.e. knowing the maximum you’ll have to pay, and that you’ll only pay for success. You also get the benefit of a time and expenses model because if the work is finished quickly and easily, you only pay for what was done.
My advice would be to try to persuade the genealogist to agree to work on a capped fee basis, with a no win / no fee element included. There will be times when this approach simply isn’t an acceptable risk for the genealogist, but in other cases, especially missing legatee cases or intestacies where the research remit can be clearly established, they should be willing to work in this way.
Whichever way you go, you should be able to expect an open and honest discussion with the genealogist when deciding on the right fee approach for both parties, and the specific case you’re dealing with.