27 Feb 2019

Probate Genealogy – notes to help you get it right from the start

When approaching anyone to provide a specialist service, it can be difficult to be sure you’re getting the best person for the job. The last thing you want is to realise that you’ve employed the wrong person once it’s too late. In this article I’m going to suggest some useful questions to ask when instructing a genealogist to give you the best chance of a successful outcome.

I’m going to focus on time and expenses fees, which is essentially the most common fee arrangement used by genealogists and favoured by the majority of our clients.

What is your hourly rate? How many hours do you think the job will take?

A number on its own may be of little use to you. If the genealogist is not expressing their quote in terms of the number of hours they think the job will take at £x per hour, I would recommend that you ask them to do so. Not only will it give you a better idea of what the quote actually means, you can use this information to compare quotes. Do two quotes of £850 equal the same amount of work, or does one represent 10 hours of expert attention while the other is only five?

Also, be sure to establish whether the quote is aimed at finishing the investigation in one go or simply to make a start, with the likelihood of more stages to come.

What are you basing your estimate on?

Thanks to technology it is now so much easier for us as genealogists to get to grips with the likely size of a task.

When I started over 20 years ago most records were on microfiche. Now computerised census returns up to 1911, the 1939 register (which I wonder how we lived without) and sophisticated databases mean we can quickly scope out a family – the number of uncles and aunts on each side, the paternal and maternal family surnames, how far back in time we have to delve etc etc.

These resources mean we have a good idea of what to expect and a genealogist should be able to explain why they have come up with a particular quote. We like prepare to a mini report at the assessment stage – not billed of course – which sets out what we’ve discovered from our initial digging and what implications this has for the likely cost.

What happens if you use fewer hours than you’re estimating?

If the genealogist wraps up a case in fewer hours than expected, they should reflect these savings in their invoice. This happens more often than you might think, and I would be wary if your regular supplier always invoices you exactly what they estimated.

What happens if you need more hours than you’re estimating?

A common criticism of genealogists is that they keep coming back for budget extensions. We always try to get the quotes right at the outset and estimate a figure aimed at finishing the job in one go. Mostly we are successful but with the best will in the world this isn’t always possible.

There are all sorts of factors that can add unexpected time to an investigation such as:

Emigration – A good genealogist will have a network of trusted agents and will be able to track down heirs all over the globe. So while it’s not going to stop us finding the heirs if they went overseas, the chances are it will mean more hours are required.

Surname change – It’s all very well starting with an unusually named family, but if one aunt marries a Smith, one marries a Jones, another a Brown etc the genealogist will have to sift through hundreds of events to find the right one.

Unusual circumstances – Genealogists like steady, they like reliable, they like boring. The easiest people to find are those who marry once, have legitimate children, hold down a steady job, register to vote, stick with one name etc. On some cases, everyone is just like that and no problems are encountered.  However, we hear all sorts of stories that from the point of view of wrapping up the case make our hearts sink:

  • “My aunt was a GI bride, I can’t remember the name of her husband”
  • “My nephew emigrated to Australia to be with his father and I think he ended up in prison for murder”
  • “The last time I heard from my brother was about eight years ago when he called me to say he was going to have a sex change”.

These situations are all resolvable, and in reality it’s these that make our job so rewarding, but they do demand more hours of our time.

Are there other fee options such as fixed fee or capped fee?

It’s definitely worth asking if alternative types of fee arrangement can be offered. We tend to undertake most of our one or two missing legatee cases on a capped fee basis. This offers clients the best of all worlds – they pay less than the quote if the case is wrapped up quickly but they know the budget won’t be extended if the case proves to be unexpectedly tricky.

We’re also always happy to discuss a fixed fee arrangement but I would suggest you proceed with caution here. Because the genealogist knows all the unforeseen complications that can occur, they have to factor them in as a possibility when proposing a fixed fee. There is therefore a good chance that you may end up paying more than you needed if the case goes swimmingly well, as many of them do.

How often will you update me?

It’s a good idea to discuss the frequency of updates at the outset. After all the chances are that you will have a lay client, eager for everything to be wrapped up, who will want updates from you. We tend to update our clients every three or four weeks unless something particularly significant happens. However, you may prefer more frequent updates or you may not want to be bothered with them at all, and all this can be agreed at the beginning.

In conclusion, I would recommend that these are the types of conversations you should be having in the early stages of your contact with a genealogist. A lot can go wrong if you instruct the wrong person or are unclear about what your outlay will get you in terms of research time. If you have clear answers to these key questions from the start you’ll be pleasantly surprised how straightforward the process can be.