Probate Genealogy Sector: The Changes We Need to See by the End of 2021
This year could end in a return to form for troubled legal sectors, or it could represent a positive new beginning for truly ethical practice.
Philip Turvey, executive director at Anglia Research, examines the issues facing probate genealogy in the UK and how it could be reformed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised the importance of acting transparently and ethically. Some sectors, such as the motoring industry, have used the pandemic to re-gain consumer trust and address the crisis in confidence by helping to manufacture ventilators for hospitals.
This effort has resulted in some fantastic PR for the likes of General Motors and Ford – but it’s certainly not PR for PR’s sake. These companies are part of the global effort to eradicate COVID-19, and their actions have forced them to take a step back and think about what is truly important.
With the vaccine rollout underway, the return to normality after the pandemic offers a chance to change an industry for good. Businesses can look to move past the morally dubious and unethical practices that were commonplace pre-COVID-19.
The state of the probate genealogy sector pre-COVID-19
Probate genealogy is one industry that needs to reset post-pandemic.
Despite the importance of the practice – with one in three people dying without a will – the sector is awash with self-proclaimed heir hunters who often have little to no experience or training. These wannabe probate genealogists have overcharged beneficiaries and, to cut corners, they conduct minimal research and do not attempt to find all entitled relatives, perhaps because other family relations are harder to find.
With the vaccine rollout underway, the return to normality after the pandemic offers a chance to change an industry for good.
Similarly, our research has found that some ‘probate genealogists’ have made informal deals with local councils over high-value estates. This has stemmed from intensive marketing efforts by heir hunters to local authorities in which misleading information and quasi legal advice is given. In 2019, Anglia Research surveyed 350 local authorities across England and Wales and found that 57% of these local governing bodies were passing on information regarding estates exclusively to a sole heir hunting firm.
When local authorities provide heir hunters with exclusive leads, they don’t just encourage excessive fees, they also risk compromising the quality of the research. For instance, imagine that details of an estate worth hundreds of thousands is passed exclusively to an heir hunter who then locates beneficiaries. Who checks that these are actually correct? The Government Legal Department’s Bona Vacantia Division can’t, because any cases passed exclusively to a single heir hunter bypasses this process, and other probate genealogy firms can’t check the validity of the results because they don’t know about the case.
In short, the process allows corners to be cut and doesn’t reveal any mistakes made by inexperienced, unqualified heir hunters.
What caused the issues in probate genealogy
But how did this unethical practice emerge?
The popular TV series, Heir Hunters, certainly contributed to the boom in self-proclaimed probate genealogists by sensationalising the sector and glamourising certain aspects of the work. However, another factor that has contributed to transparency issues in the sector is the lack of statutory regulation. Unlike the banking sector, which is monitored by the Financial Conduct Authority, the probate genealogy sector is not formally regulated.
Membership to self-regulating bodies, such as the Association of Probate Researchers, which has an independent compensation and complaints scheme, is entirely voluntary. The body has no statutory power to enforce industry wide membership, nor can they punish any rogue actors within the sector.
The combination of untrained probate genealogists and a lack of regulatory authorities creates the perfect environment for underhand tactics to spread. Independent regulation and meaningful accreditation are practices we at Anglia Research have in place to guarantee transparency. These practices should be adopted industry-wide if we are to change the sector for good.
The changes to the probate genealogy sector
The end of the pandemic in the coming months gives the probate genealogy sector a chance to draw a line in the sand and adopt a more ethical, transparent way of working with clients.
As mentioned above, accreditation is one way to improve the probate genealogy sector. Recently we’ve seen companies claiming they’ve won industry awards – or even set up their own awards scheme, which of course they win – but it’s no longer enough to just pay lip service by subscribing to organisations and societies. Nor is it sufficient to only gain accreditation so you can put the symbol on your website or business card.
If probate genealogists are serious about following ethical practice, then they must abide by the industry body rules and show that they have the competence to comply and uphold best practice. Furthermore, local authorities must conduct due diligence and withhold from engaging in partnerships with unethical firms or those with bad reputations. To avoid failing a compliance audit they should follow government guidelines by referring all qualifying cases to the Government Legal Department’s Bona Vacantia Division. Local councils need to stop creating monopolies and facilitate peer assessment to help reform the sector.
Pre-COVID-19, probate genealogy was going down the wrong path. Inexperienced heir hunters were leaving beneficiaries short-changed. However, like most sectors, the pandemic has given us the chance to reset. If we can put the above steps in place, then we’ll start moving away from our unethical past and become a sector that operates in a way that matches the importance of our work.