18 May 2016
Peace of mind for problem estates
An integral part of providing a great service as genealogists is to provide regular updates to our clients, and as such we always aim to update them before they need to ask us. This is particularly important when dealing with the kind of sprawling intestacy matters that can take a few months rather than a few weeks to resolve.
Although no two cases are identical, our years’ of experience mean we are very familiar with how these cases unfold. We appreciate, however, that our clients and their lay clients may have no experience of these matters and, with that in mind, I have prepared a piece to explain how these cases tend to progress and where bottlenecks can occur.
Complex case approach
We often surprise our clients with just how much we can find out in a matter of half an hour or so when preparing our complimentary Assessment Report.
In most cases, when dealing with average surnames (Smiths, Joneses and Browns are trickier) we can often find an Intestate’s paternal and maternal families on at least one census return. The 1911 census, if we’re lucky enough to find a family on that, tells us the number of children born to a marriage and the number of those still alive at that point. Armed with that knowledge, and possibly a quick search for further issue after 1911, we can report back to our client with a solid idea as to what we’re dealing with. And with that we will suggest a likely number of hours to complete the job.
So far so good and in fact I sometimes worry that we may give the impression that if we can do all that in such a short space of time, the whole job should only take a week!
Beyond initial assessment
However, once we’re instructed things tend to slow down for a while. The indexes contain minimal detail and everything has to be confirmed by ordering the certificates (which theoretically take five working days to come back). At this point the case can become very ‘stop-start’ as we order certificates, wait for them to come back, act on the new information, order more certificates, wait for them to come back etc. For this reason, the first few weeks of a case may often yield information at a snail’s pace in comparison to the dizzying amount established in the first 30 minutes or so.
This somewhat laboured activity has a purpose and is geared towards finding our first living family member, at which point the case springs back into life. With a bit of luck, there will be a flurry of activity in which we speak with one family member after another, establishing contact details and being sent many of the documents needed to accompany our final report.
The dream first point of contact is the little old lady, sharp as a tack, who loves to talk and knows everyone. However, it doesn’t always work like that and it will be with some dismay that we hear things like “I haven’t seen my sister since mum died in 1987” and “no, I don’t think she was married but she had a daughter, I can’t think of her name”.
Naturally, anything we are told by the family has to be verified with the appropriate searches and documentation. That means ordering more certificates and waiting for them to come back.
We might also be told at this point about various distant relatives who went to Australia or Canada, a cousin in prison or the proverbial “black sheep of the family” who never married but had five children. Also it can be extremely difficult to convince certain people (understandably so) that we are not scammers out to steal their life savings or their identity. These types of scenarios are all resolvable but, as you can imagine, they slow our work down and mean that an update to the client is definitely required.
Pulling it all together
The last hurdle in any case is the final report and everything has to be in place for that: all heirs contacted and interviewed, all events documented, insurance in place if necessary. All this takes time and just one certificate promised to us but not sent, or one heir apparently located but unwilling to communicate with us, could delay a case by several weeks.
To conclude, most cases have a rhythm which sees great bursts of activity interspersed with dead time waiting for certificates or people to get back to us. We always finalise cases as swiftly and efficient as possible but sometimes things happen that are out of our control and inevitably slow down our progress. In these circumstances, all we can do is keep our clients regularly updated and work through whatever a case throws at us as quickly and diligently as possible.