Families are complicated. Unexpected things happen. People grow apart.
Every few years there is an extraordinary story of someone who died at home whose body wasn’t discovered until years later. Typically these take place in densely populated metropolitan areas making it all the more incomprehensible that the person was not missed by neighbours or family. Sometimes relatives emerge after the eventual discovery of the body and stake claim on these estates which attracts some criticism given their presumed absence during the person’s living years and a failure to notice them missing. Yet, the fact is that families become estranged and grow apart, but this does not mean they are not entitled to an intestate estate. For intestate estates, the extent to which an heir rang the deceased on a Sunday or dropped by for a cup of tea or visited them in hospital when they were ill is essentially irrelevant. In some cases, they have never even met.
The whole analogy between families and trees has endured because it reflects the journey of family divergence. It provides the ultimate visual analogy of how families and individuals branch out and move in different directions across the generations. Sometimes this is gradual and happens without families even realising it. Other times families fracture suddenly, parting ways as a result of some unforgivable circumstance from which the relationships cannot recover or because of catastrophes like war. Consider the impact of World War Two on millions of families. One way or another, family members proliferate and disseminate. The creeping wall of time shifts this inevitability forward, until one day they need to be found by reason of their kinship.
It may seem inconceivable that people have no idea where their cousins are for the purposes of administering an intestate estate or there is an estate where beneficiaries are not known to those connected to its administration. They may know of the beneficiaries but have absolutely no idea where they are or even whether they are still alive. That’s quite normal and happens more often than we realise.
The process of tracing families is a forensic exercise. It is not the domain of the private investigator or the amateur genealogist. It is a specialised field in its own right requiring a high level of genealogical skill in proving and tracing kin as well as legal and drafting expertise to articulate research findings with reference to the evidence and the law applying in each case. Probate genealogy, a type of forensic genealogy, is as the name suggests, genealogy for deceased estate matters. The forensics of tracing families can be complicated and requires analytical, lateral and strategic thinking. It is often complex, not just in terms of the research but in terms of the construction of the documents that need to be fit for their purpose. Affidavits of Genealogy for intestate cases for example need to align with and respond to the relevant legal provisions to achieve their objectives of proof and determine ultimate entitlement. Forensic genealogy is also relevant in the medical context where clinical genetics laboratories investigate inherited conditions using a combination of DNA testing and forensic genealogy.
Expert genealogical evidence for legal purposes must meet the legal standard of proof such that it withstands the scrutiny of the court. The Court, Legal Practitioners, Executors and medical experts should be positioned to rely upon it with confidence to make decisions and to carry out legal and medical processes.