Forensic Heir, Next of Kin & Probate Research Services

Ethical kinship research, when credibility matters

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Mark A. Wentling, MLS, CG

Are you an attorney or legal professional and need help locating next of kin or heirs to an estate?  Since 2017, I have offered forensic kinship research services to the legal community in Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and beyond.

As a Board-certified genealogist, peer-reviewed author, board member, and university instructor in genealogical methods, my recognized credentials lend credibility to the standards-based results I will produce for you.

My experience ranges from identifying heirs for probate and quiet title actions on real estate, to finding the correct next of kin and DNA donors for U.S. Army repatriation cases. [Download my resume]

In all cases, I maintain the highest ethical standards, working strictly on an hourly fee plus costs basis — never on contingency — so that you, your client, and the court can have total confidence in the completeness and accuracy of my research as a disinterested third party. [Read: Why is contingency fee-based heir research unethical?]

All findings are backed by evidence and analysis that meets the Genealogy Standards set forth by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, of which I am an associate, and I have signed the Board’s Genealogist’s Code of Ethics.  I have also signed the Code of Ethics and Professional Practices set forth by the Association of Professional Genealogists, of which I am a current Director of the Board, and past Vice President of its Forensic Genealogy Special Interest Group.  In addition, I follow the Standards of Practice & Conduct set forth by the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy.

Please contact me to inquire about your case.  I look forward to working with you.

My forensic services include:

  • Identifying beneficiaries, legatees, missing and unknown heirs, and next of kin
  • Affidavits of kinship and due diligence, with supporting exhibits, always fully source-cited
  • Family tree charts, accurately and clearly organized
  • Verification or correction of other heir search firms’ research

Ways I can support your work include:

  • Probate — I conduct thorough genealogical research into a decedent’s family to identify lineal and collateral descendants, so that you can give notice to the correct next of kin and heirs at law, and provide an accurate accounting to the court.
  • Guardianship/Conservatorship — I identify next of kin who can help care for your client and their estate, as well as identify parents for completing death certificates, and other research related to establishing identity and family as needed.
  • Quiet title and adverse possession of property — I search probate and other records to trace inheritance over time, in order to identify those with a current legal interest in a property.
  • Abandoned property — I perform genealogical research to identify the current rightful heirs.
  • Military repatriation — I reconstruct a soldier’s immediate family using historical records, then work forward through time to identify eligible DNA donors to assist in identification of remains, then identify the legal next of kin to whom they may be returned.

Recent case successes:

  • 2021-2022 – Rhode Island:  Traced heirs to the estate of a decedent whose family members had multiple out-of-wedlock births.  Proved “children” named in published obituaries for several relatives were in fact stepchildren and ineligible to take.  Research resulted in opposing counsel’s pleading based on a contingency-based heir search firm’s faulty research to be withdrawn. 
  • 2020-2021 – New York:  Identified heirs living in Germany and the U.S. for the estate of a Westchester County decedent whose mother was born out-of-wedlock to a father whose identity had been hidden by her mother.  I then identified the likely father and his living next of kin by eliminating nineteen other men of the same name from contention.  Case involved extensive research in German and New York City records from mid-1800s to present.
  • 2019 – Massachusetts:  Proved the adoption of a Massachusetts woman during the 1940’s, settling the question of whether her biological or adoptive relatives could take.  Then, identified nine heirs not known by her family, nearly doubling the number of eligible distributees.
  • 2018 – New York:  Traced the family of an African-American decedent, born in South Carolina during the 1930’s, through Virginia, New Jersey, and New York City, to successfully identify his sole living nephew.
  • 2018 – Massachusetts:  Used immigration and military service papers to prove that a decedent’s Italian grandfather fled the draft to Connecticut during World War I, then started a second family in New York City during the 1920’s.  I then identified his two previously unknown children, who were still living and eligible to take.
  • 2017 – Massachusetts:  Identified the sole living distributee who required notice for an estate left to a Massachusetts decedent’s four siblings in 1909, as part of a quiet title action.
  • Since 2017 – U.S. & International:  On behalf of the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, identified the next of kin and eligible DNA donors for the families of over ninety World War II and Korean War U.S. Army soldiers to date, whose remains were not fully accounted for at the time, in support of the U.S. Army’s mission to repatriate remains from past conflicts.  Cases have involved research in records of all fifty U.S. states, plus the Philippines, Canada, Germany, Wales and Trinidad, and as far back as the 1700s in some cases to identify common ancestry of DNA donor candidates.

Why is contingency fee-based heir research unethical?

Some genealogical research firms approach potential heirs and ask them to sign over a portion of their potential financial distribution from an estate in advance—often 20% or more—in exchange for the firm’s promise to locate remaining heirs, and to represent their interests during the probate process, at no up-front cost to the heir and at no cost if no distribuition is recovered from the estate.  This is called contingency fee-based heir research and it is unethical because it creates a conflict of interest for the firm in two ways:

First, the heir may end up losing a substantial financial sum that is not commensurate with the work performed by the firm, and to which the heir would not have agreed had they known the actual cost up front.  For example, for a $250,000 estate, a genealogy firm that works 40 hours and charges a 20% contingency can take $50,000 from the heirs.  By comparison, a genealogist who works the same 40 hours at $120 per hour charges the estate $4,800—a more than 90% savings for the heirs.  Heir search firms typically do not disclose to potential heirs before signing the estimated dollar value of the estate, or how many other heirs there may be, leaving the heir in the dark about how much of their rightful inheritance they are actually giving away when they sign.

Second, contingency-fee work gives the firm a financial interest in the outcome of the case.  It becomes in the firm’s interest to omit from its report to the court any legitimate heirs who did not sign, or to misrepresent to the court that someone who signed is an heir when in fact they are not.  Doing so maximizes the amount of money the firm potentially collects:  The fewer heirs reported, the larger the share each heir receives, and thus the higher the dollar value of the portion the firm takes from each heir who signed.  Likewise, the more people who sign that are accepted as purported heirs even if they are not, the higher the total dollar value collected by the firm.  Although not all heir search firms engage in this type of conduct, I have personally produced research for the court to successfully refute both kinds of false claims. 

For these reasons, the Standards of Practice & Conduct set forth by the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy specifically prohibit genealogists from entering into contingency fee-based agreements for heir search services.

Instead, hourly fee-based work is regarded as the ethical approach to professional heir research.  It allows the court to have complete confidence in the genealogist’s findings as a disinterested third party, because the genealogist has no financial stake in the outcome of the case.  It also preserves more of the estate for distribution to the rightful heirs, because the genealogist’s total fee is modest and commensurate with the work, compared to the value of the share that is forfeited on a contingency fee basis.

 

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