The History of Forensic Genealogy in Heir Searching


By: HeirSearch

The issue of inheritance has been an important matter in society, stretching back to ancient cultures in Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean. For instance, one of the earliest known recorded wills was discovered by Egyptologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie. He unearthed a settlement made nearly 4,500 years ago by Sekhenren in favor of his brother. The document includes an attestation clause, is witnessed by two scribes, and outlines specific conditions, one of which is the prohibition of demolishing houses.

Given the critical significance of inheritance throughout history, it is unsurprising that forensic genealogy has become instrumental in establishing legal claims and safeguarding estate rights in judicial proceedings. Below, we explore the history of forensic genealogy, its roots, and the impact it has had in the legal world.

The Role of Forensic Genealogy in Heir Searching

Forensic genealogy applies analytical, genealogical research and techniques to legal issues. In contrast to traditional genealogy, which generally focuses on assembling family histories for personal knowledge and enrichment, forensic genealogy often requires adherence to legal standards and may involve a variety of research methods including DNA analysis, vital record searches, obituary research, and more.

In the matter of probate, determining the legitimate heir to an estate was often a tricky one. Families were (and continue to be) complex, and determining the rightful heirs depended on a variety of genealogical, immigration, legal, and state factors. As estates grew and assets diversified, the need for a legally defensible and proven methodology of establishing inheritance and consanguinity grew as well. In response, the discipline of forensic genealogy was born.

The Roots of Forensic Genealogy

The history of forensic genealogy is intimately tied to the history of the probate court system. In      North America, probate courts have their roots in two distinct court systems from post-Norman Invasion England: the Ecclesiastical Courts, which originally managed the deceased’s goods to ensure payment for spiritual services, and the Common Law and later Chancery Courts for secular matters concerning estate distribution. As the colonies in North America developed, they formed Probate or Orphans’ Courts, often with overlapping jurisdictions with existing court systems. Today, most states have integrated their separate probate courts into broader court systems, with specialized judges handling probate matters within these unified courts.

The application of forensic genealogy in heir searching has a history that stretches back to the 1850s. In this era, “heir hunters” began to make their mark, operating within the shadows of the legal system to locate missing or unknown relatives of decedents. These early forerunners of forensic genealogy conducted genealogical research to inform potential heirs of their inheritance rights, working under contingency agreements that awarded them a large share of the property.

As the practice evolved, heir hunters played a crucial role in shaping the methodologies of modern forensic genealogy. Through the 1950s and 1960s, firms specializing in providing forensic genealogy began to form, offering their services to courts. By 1984, an article in the Sunday News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware identified several major heir search firms operating in the country, “each with seven or eight investigators and another handful of agents based in various regions.”

However, the industry also faced challenges due to the nature of its operations. Despite the significant social value heir hunters could provide by locating long-lost relatives, the field was marred by issues such as increased litigation in cases involving heir hunters, conflicts of interest, and the charging of exorbitant fees. These practices ultimately led to a divide in the perception of heir searching, with calls for reforms to maximize the practice’s benefits while mitigating its adverse effects.

The Advent of DNA Testing

As the century progressed, the role of forensic genealogy in the courts grew, as did the number of heir search firms and independent heir hunters. In this process, the variety of quality and legitimacy of the services provided greatly expanded, resulting in both reputable and disreputable service providers in the discipline.

The identification of the DNA helix by scientists in the 1950s provided an additional, powerful tool for forensic genealogists. DNA testing introduced a scientific method for establishing familial connections with high accuracy, greatly impacting the field of heir searching. This advancement allowed for a level of certainty in establishing lineage that was previously impossible.

With DNA, heir searches could be done with great accuracy, speed, and efficiency, allowing researchers and investigators to provide greater value to their clients and to the courts.

The Future of Forensic Genealogy & Heir Searching

Today, the field of forensic genealogy is thriving, aided in part by consumer-facing genealogical testing services that have created an enormous public record of genealogical data. The increasing access to extensive DNA databases is likely to make forensic genealogy an even more critical tool in legal scenarios, ensuring its relevance and application in a broadening range of contexts. In fact, forensic genetic genealogy led to the arrest and capture of the Golden State killer in 2018, over 40 years after the case had gone cold.

Forensic genealogy continues to play a crucial role in probate and estate cases throughout the United States and across the world. As technology advances, researchers and forensic genealogists are able to increase their quality and success rates in locating and identifying heirs. And as access to digital resources increases, and the mountain of data and records available continues to grow, the role of forensic genealogy has never been more important in providing accurate, quality, and evidence-based solutions.

HeirSearch: Rooted in History and Experience

HeirSearch was founded in 1967 by C. Tim Rodenbush and was one of the early providers of forensic genealogy in heir searches. At a time when the industry was just beginning to flourish, HeirSearch was a pioneer in providing reasonable fees that were not based on a percentage of the inheritance.

Today, HeirSearch carries those same principles forward through both our legacy and commitment to the principles we were founded upon. Built on decades of experience and expertise, HeirSearch’s professional researchers identify and locate missing or unknown beneficiaries and heirs for probate and trust termination. We work exclusively with executors, administrators, trustees, fiduciaries, bank and trust officers, and their counsel to establish kinship for legal purposes.

In over five decades, HeirSearch has successfully completed tens of thousands of worldwide searches. We proudly offer no-cost, no-obligation consultations, court-ready reports, and reasonable, non-percentage-based fees.

If you are looking for assistance with a case, have questions, or wish to learn more about our services, we encourage you to reach out.

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This report is for informational purposes only and is intended only as a reference. HeirSearch does not endorse or recommend any of the products or services offered in the third-party articles or content contained within. We cannot guarantee the accuracy or effectiveness of the same and will not assume any liability related to the same. Additionally, nothing contained herein may be construed as legal advice. All offers are void where prohibited by law. Copyright © International Genealogical Search Inc. All rights reserved.