What is a genealogist?
In the broadest sense of the word, a genealogist is a person who carries out genealogical research, i.e. research into relatives and parentage, either in a personal or professional capacity.
Among the professional genealogists there are family genealogists, who carry out research on behalf of private clients and are paid directly by them, and probate genealogists, who will be discussed here.
This is ‘a professional who, in return for a share of the value of the property recovered, offers to reveal to one or more persons the existence of the estate of a person, whether related to the deceased or not, whom they did not know they were entitled to inherit’ (Généalogiste – Dictionnaire de Droit privé).
The main task of the probate genealogist is therefore to find the heirs of a deceased person with no known family. Their research mission is generally entrusted to them by the notary in charge of the settlement of the estate after investigations have remained unsuccessful, incomplete or uncertain. However, the probate genealogist may be mandated by any individual with a direct and legitimate interest in having them intervene.
Conversely, in the absence of a mandate, Article 36 of Law 2006-728 of 23 June 2006 provides that ‘no one may undertake or assist in the search for an heir in an open estate or an asset that has been omitted during the settlement of the estate’, except in the specific case of the application of the vacancy or escheatment regime. Without a prior mandate, neither remuneration nor reimbursement of expenses incurred may be claimed by the person who carried out the searches.
In the most frequent case where the genealogist is mandated by the notary, it is nevertheless the heirs who are obliged to remunerate the genealogist by virtue of the disclosure contract, which obliges them to pay the genealogist a certain share of the net assets collected by each heir (it is therefore each heir who remunerates the genealogist individually).
The first French genealogy firm was founded in 1830; the profession had previously been of little use at a time when individuals remained in the same villages all their lives, and often for several generations.
In a context of increasing geographical mobility, the growth of blended families and the isolation of the elderly, the search for heirs has nevertheless become more complex and the use of an inheritance genealogist can be very useful.
For example, notaries currently call on these archive specialists in an average of 2% of successions.
How does the genealogist proceed?
The probate genealogist is a true researcher, who first uses the databases of the firm in which they work. These give them access to countless data such as civil registers, population censuses, tax, land or electoral records.
They can also carry out research in national archives, town halls (including those abroad), etc.
Finally, if necessary, they can conduct a field survey by going to the site to collect any useful testimony.
When is it necessary to require the services of a genealogist?
In most cases, the notary in charge of the estate will conduct the search for heirs (identification and location) using the family record book, civil status records and information provided by known heirs and other relatives of the deceased. The notary is responsible for drawing up the various deeds required to settle the estate, liquidate it and divide it up. In this respect, they draw up the deed of public identity, which establishes proof of the status of heir.
However, it is the notary’s responsibility to verify the information collected using the elements at their disposal. If they have any doubts about the information provided, or if the information available to them is insufficient (e.g. if the family record book is lost or does not exist if the deceased was a national of a foreign country), the notary will require the services of a genealogist to whom they will send a mandate to search for heirs, which sets out the task.
The condition for the validity of disclosure contracts was laid down in a ministerial reply (Rép. min. à QE no 139, JOAN Q. 28 June 1993, p. 1836): the contract must have a cause, i.e. the genealogist must reveal a real secret to the heir. The notary cannot in any way relieve themself of their duties, since their actual investigations must necessarily have remained ‘fruitless, incomplete or uncertain’ before they can rely on the genealogist.
The genealogist’s task may then be to search for all the heirs and/or legatees, to search for a single person unknown to the other successors or whom they would like to exclude from the estate, or to verify certain elements.
In some situations, the heirs seem to be known, but the notary, who is bound by an obligation of diligence in their duties, must carry out certain checks. The vast majority of successions can thus be settled following the checks carried out by the notary, but it may happen that proof of certain information cannot be provided or that uncertainty remains. This may be the case in order to ensure that the known heirs are indeed the closest, if not the only ones.
Verification of devolution is particularly important in the case of complex estates, especially international estates and/or estates beyond the fourth degree (e.g. the estate of a second cousin). The use of a genealogist is a guarantee of security for the notary, who can then attach a certified genealogical chart to the deed of notoriety. The genealogist is legally and financially liable for this chart.
As a known heir, can I refuse the services of a genealogist?
In a judgment handed down by the Court of Cassation on 9 June 2017, an heiress was ordered to pay a genealogist even though she had notified the notary in charge of her first cousin’s estate prior to the search mandate granted to the genealogist.
In this case, the genealogist had made it possible to identify and locate the other heirs, twenty-three cousins, who had all agreed to sign the disclosure contract. The heiress, who had contacted the notary directly, refused to pay the genealogist on the grounds that she was already aware of the death and that she thought she could moreover provide useful information about the other heirs by herself.
Initially, the Versailles High Court disallowed the genealogist’s application, but the Court of Cassation subsequently ruled that the heiress should nevertheless pay the genealogist for the service rendered, suggesting that the genealogist’s work had not only served the interests of the other heirs, but also those of the known heiress, since it had enabled the notary to draw up the deed of public identity required to settle the estate.