Hunting for Heirs


(Fact - Based on Memory)



















Heir hunters have always hated waiting in line at courthouse counters.  These are the genealogists who scour through probate records searching for estates involving unknown heirs.  They need information and they need it fast because theirs is a competitive business. Such a hunter has to find out which estates involve heirs unknown, find those heirs, and sign them up to a contract before their competition does.  One-third of an heir’s share of the estate is the typical fee charged, so you can understand the urgency on the part of the heir hunter.  This ratio might seem excessive on its face, but looking at the whole picture – the hours spent trolling the courthouse documents and tracking down the lost relative, the presumption that the relative would remain “lost” and receive no windfall at all without the intervention of the genealogist – puts the contracts in perspective.        

In the days before digitized records, it was not uncommon to see a genealogist hard at work, volumes of dusty old deed books and records spread out over the tables and counters in the registry of the courthouse, trying to connect the dots.  The stereotypical image of a genealogist may be a bespectacled gentleman or lady fascinated with solving ancestral mysteries, but those that hunt heirs for a share of an estate are involved in a hardnosed, tough, aggressive business. 

I heard a case involving a woman who had been contacted by a genealogist offering to connect her with two thirds of her inheritance.  Rather than sign his contract, she pondered her own family tree, figured out the most likely source, and claimed the estate herself.  Indicative of the aggressive nature of this business, she was sued by the heir hunter who claimed that he had shared the information with her verbally.  The heir hunter did not prevail.  Another case, long before my time, gives us a further glimpse at the heir hunter role.   

It seems that back in the 1940’s, the Probate and Family Court in Boston found that Julia Welch, nee Daly, was one of two first cousins of the decedent, John J. Donovan, and therefore, since there were no other heirs closer in kinship, was entitled to one-half of his estate.  In 1944, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed the decision.  Appellate courts tend to focus on matters of law and leave fact finding to the trial courts, but here, in the absence of findings of fact from the trial judge, the SJC made findings of its own based on the transcript of the trial before rendering final judgment. 

The court’s facts, although brief, are rather difficult to follow, leaving the reader confused over who was who.  Apparently, the lives of the large and sprawling Daly and Donovan families were frequently intertwined.  You can almost hear the SJC’s frustration, “We do not know how many other Dalys and Donovans were listed as residents of this neighborhood.”  With the frequent moves from one tenement house to another, the name changes due to marriage, and the large number of siblings involved, it was a puzzle to piece together.  And it began with an heir hunter.

 The SJC wrote:   

“[Julia]  . . . did not learn of the death of . . . John J. Donovan until a genealogist, so called, visited her on August 1, 1941, and had her sign a contract by which he was to receive one third of what she obtained if she was successful in proving her relationship to Donovan.  This genealogist disappeared during the hearing and the appellant attempted to summon him as a witness.”

It leaves one wondering, why did they refer to the genealogist as “so called” and, more suggestively, why did he disappear during the hearing?  What was heard at the original trial that led the judge to grant half the estate to Julia, and what weaknesses were exposed on appeal that caused the SJC to take it away? 

It was not an instance, like one of my own cases, where a genealogist was ablaze with excitement at the prospect of bagging his money then crestfallen when preempted by another genealogist who swooped in with a different heir closer in degree of kinship to the decedent.  After steering through the labyrinth of relationships, the SJC simply found that the evidence did not support a ruling that Julia Welch, nee Daly, was John J. Donovan’s first cousin.  As for the heir hunter who “disappeared” during the trial, he must have decided that he had tracked the wrong quarry. 


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