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When it comes to family history, assume nothing!

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 09:00 UK time, Friday, 2 March 2012

It's been one of those strange weeks when people and life don't seem to be doing what I expect them to do.

As a specialist in tracing people part of my daily routine is spent tracking down beneficiaries to the estates of people who have died without leaving a will. I thought that over the past 15 years I'd encountered just about every facet of human life and society, but I am always being amazed, and that alone keeps me motivated.


The research is sometimes relatively easy compared to the actual contact with the beneficiaries. Tracking long lost Joneses in Wales is far easier than telling someone that their mother has died, which I've had to do twice this year and it's still only the start of March. It's easy for me to be judgemental and to ask how did they not know that their own mother had died. Not knowing often equates with not caring but this isn't necessarily the case and people always have a reason.

Recently I've also had to tell a son that his father has died. I learned that the father had been a long-term patient living for 50 years in an institution for people with mental health issues, never once visited by his son because his mother was trying to protect him from something.

Some of the people take the news badly. Sometimes there are tears but more often the news is met with a simple "I wondered what happened to them," or worse, "We weren't allowed to mention their name or ask any questions".

In the past I've offered to help locate graves or offered to have a headstone or memorial erected but I've stopped offering now since it is a presumption on my behalf that they care. Judging by the uncomfortable pauses I've endured, some of them neither want nor need this information and have no desire to learn any more about their long lost relative.

This doesn't necessarily mean that they are greedy or only interested in the money. In fact, a lot of my time is spent trying to persuade people that they should take the money rather than let the Crown keep it, alongside the other millions of pounds they already make from intestate estates. After a while the guilt subsides and people can be encouraged to nominate a charity or to think of others in their family who may need the money more.

But inheriting money from someone you didn't know doesn't sit well with a lot of people. Naturally it makes them reflect upon their own mortality and their own sense of family. I imagine that they wonder what would happen were they to die without leaving a will.

In the past I've also assumed that to die without a will means that that you die alone and that their funeral was an empty sad affair. I couldn't have been more wrong. Often the person who dies has a great many friends who cared greatly for that person, including a number of very close friends, carers and/or partners.

Some of these people may have been told that they were going to benefit. Yet when the time comes and a will cannot be found, or it is not dated or signed by two witnesses, or any number of other legalities, it may be invalid and the people who cared, and who were there at the end, simply cannot inherit.

Of course the TV and radio work that I do for the BBC helps enormously, as has the BBC One series Heir Hunters series, since now people know that this is a bona fide (if rather unusual) situation and that the reason for me approaching them is genuine.

I can't see that my line of work will ever dry up but if I am honest it would nice to think that fewer people suffered simply by ensuring that a will is written, which is why when I send out cheques to the beneficiaries I always finish my letters with these words:

"Ensure that you leave a will so that the people you care about benefit from your estate and that the same situation does not arise again."

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