Family tree

Modern families and intestacy: The importance of verifying a family tree

Apr 5, 2023 1:07:00 PM

At Title Research, we always recommend that Personal Representatives get family trees professionally verified when dealing with an intestate estate or missing beneficiaries. On numerous occasions, we have seen our clients come very close to a misdistribution, where the Personal Representative would have subsequently been liable if there were any claims against the estate. By professionally verifying the family tree, Personal Representatives can ensure that everyone who is entitled to the estate is included and those unentitled are excluded.

Changing family dynamics

As family relationships become increasingly complex, it makes family tree verification more important than ever. Today, we’re frequently asked for advice and guidance in verifying or reconstructing family trees due to complex family dynamics.

Modern families

In the past, it was much more common for a couple to get married, have children, and stay together until they passed away. This is no longer the case. We now frequently come across children who are born with a different mother or father than their siblings; children whose parents never married; children across multiple marriages; and more. If you’re not an experienced genealogical researcher, it can be more difficult to unravel families of this kind.

The marriage rate has been gradually decreasing since World War II, which creates new challenges for genealogists. As mentioned above, children born outside of marriage can make genealogical research more complicated. Birth records are rarely identifiable through standard, methodical research methods. We are therefore reliant on family testimony, which can be difficult in smaller families where there are not as many relatives to verbally verify the family tree.


Another change in family dynamics which makes family tree verification more complicated is the rise in adoption. When adoption became legal in 1927, adopting in or out of the family was a rare occurrence. Between 1927 and 1946, only four volumes of indexes were required to document adoptions. However, by 1963, one volume was needed for every year and now, a volume is needed for every quarter. This highlights the growing frequency of adoption and how it is much more socially acceptable and openly discussed today.  

Same-sex couples were given the right to obtain the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage under the Civil Partnership Act of 2004. Then, same-sex marriage became fully legalised in England and Wales from March 2014 as the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was created. These changes in legislation are beginning to impact genealogical work, as for the first time a same-sex couple can legally marry and adopt a child.

Travel and emigration

There is an increasing number of people travelling and/or moving overseas, whether that be for work, retirement, or family reasons. This can make it more common for family members to lose touch and beneficiaries to become missing. Your client and their family may not be in contact with a particular line of the family – in some cases, families might not even be aware of their existence.

Some overseas jurisdictions pose unique challenges to genealogy work, with stricter privacy laws and different approaches to record-keeping. In these cases, we are often reliant on family testimony and unconventional forms of documentary evidence to verify entitlement. Whilst recognising these limitations, it is essential that we gather a sufficient body of evidence so that the Personal Representatives can distribute to beneficiaries living overseas with full confidence.

Click here to read our blog on the UK rules of intestacy.

The risk of claims against the estate

Even if you believe you have a complete family tree, there are many scenarios where entitled beneficiaries could go unidentified. Misdistribution of an estate can cause significant risk to Personal Representatives, as they are liable to any claims made against the estate by relatives further down the line.

When instructing Title Research to verify a family tree, we will provide certificates proving entitlement; a distribution schedule detailing factional entitlement; and a diagrammatic family tree. Our research is conducted with insurance in mind, meaning that our methodologies are accepted by specialist insurers. Therefore, we can provide Missing Beneficiary Insurance to give you peace of mind that you and your clients are protected if a beneficiary reappears after the estate has been distributed.

It's important to be aware that not all genealogy firms will carry out their research in a way that insurers will accept; in the initial stages of instructing a firm, it’s best practice to enquire about insurance so that you can ensure your clients are protected. Read more about the different types of cover available and insurers’ normal requirements.


Case study: Class gift verification

Wills often leave inheritance as a class gift. In this case, our Solicitor client was dealing with a Will where the Testator had left their residual estate to their ‘grandchildren’, but they had not named each individual. Our client was concerned that the Executor would be liable if a previously unknown grandchild presented themselves after the estate had been distributed. Our expert genealogy team were instructed to verify the Testator’s family tree. Watch the video below to find out what happened next:


Working with Title Research

Our genealogy experience spans over 50 years and in that time, we’ve learnt that family trees are not always as they seem. If you’ve been presented with an intestate estate, we highly recommend that you get the complete family tree professionally verified or appoint an experienced genealogist to reconstruct the family tree if it’s incomplete. This will ensure that the estate is correctly distributed so that there’s no risk to the Personal Representative.

When verifying family trees, our expert genealogy team will:

  • Document all events of birth, marriage, death, divorce, or adoption that have not already been obtained

  • Carry out confirmatory searches of the birth and marriage indices

  • Interview all beneficiaries to check that the information is accurate and up to date

Title Research can help you mitigate risk on intestacy by verifying or reconstructing family trees. If you need advice on dealing with an intestate estate or tracking down missing beneficiaries, call our client services team on 0345 87 27 600 or fill in the form below:


Topics: Intestacy, Family tree verification, Family dynamics