I wanted to ask you about this Probate email my sister in law received, she is not into genealogy at all so questioned me about it.The message then went on for a bit, giving the name of the company involved, the company's web site, and more.
They gave my step father's name and totally different or wrong parents for him, but knew his date of birth, death and that my mother remarried and had the correct name of that husband. It worried her that they knew some of the correct material (no secrets anymore on the internet these days) they wanted her to contact them because she might inherit some money..........I think it all sounds very fishy and wanted your experienced comment or if you had heard of them?
I agree: it sounds suspicious.
To be sure, there are many legitimate probate research firms that are honest corporations and provide worthwhile services. Probate research firms usually are NOT attorneys, although many of them send letters with letterheads that certainly look like the stationery of law firms.
Probate research companies simply look at recently probated wills in public records and then try to find the heirs mentioned. If successful, they charge a fee to the heirs for delivering money or other valuable things (real estate, etc.) that were left by the deceased. In many cases, the heirs would never know about the funds if a probate research firm didn't notify them.
There is nothing wrong with probate research services. Many are rated A+ by the Better Business Bureau. They often provide a valuable service. After all, wouldn't you want to know if someone left you money? How else would you know?
Most genealogists are very proficient at finding people, both alive and deceased. A number of professional genealogists, including some of the best-known experts of our time, have “sideline jobs” as probate researchers, either self-employed or working for one of the probate research firms.
Legitimate probate research companies typically work on a contingent fee basis only, whereby they receive a percentage of an heir's inheritance only IF and WHEN the heir receives their inheritance. Legitimate companies typically charge a fee of 30% or so of the money found but never, ever ask for any payment in advance. If the company asks for much more than 30%, be suspicious.
The lawyers handling the will should be doing the research, but they probably won't bother with smaller amounts, such as $1,000 or so. Sure, if someone left you a few million dollars, the probate lawyers certainly would find you. They will do so by hiring a probate research firm themselves, although I suspect the lawyers will pay a lot less than 30% for the research company's fees. But if great-uncle Jasper left you his Red Sox memorabilia and perhaps $750 in cash, the lawyers probably wouldn't expend a lot of effort to find you. In that case, the independent (non-lawyer) probate researcher steps in and tries to find you on his/her own in return for a fee of 30% or so.
I don't see anything wrong with this. After all, receiving 70% of $1,000 is better than receiving zero percent of the same amount.
One other fact in this email message bothers me: the probate research firm contacted the presumed heir by email. Why would they use email? Where did they get the email address? It certainly wasn't listed in the will! And, assuming the presumed heir's name isn't terribly rare, how did they know it was the correct person?
I would assume that legitimate probate researchers would contact potential heirs either by telephone call (with legal paperwork to follow soon after) or by registered mail with return receipts. Email? That's the same method used by Nigerian scammers. I would never trust anyone who contacts me first by email with claims that I am going to receive money. Such emails already go straight to the spam folder.
Next, a sure sign of a true scam is when the "company" asks you to pay a fee in advance. Legitimate probate researchers will never, ever do that. Their fees are collected at the moment you receive the final check, not before.
If you receive a telephone call or a letter from a company claiming to be a probate research firm, immediately check the Better Business Bureau's web site at http://www.bbb.org/. A more direct link to the BBB's database of U.S. businesses and charities is at http://www.bbb.org/us/Find-Business-Reviews/
Any BBB rating of less than A+ is a cause for concern.
Next, go to Google and search for the company's name. That will probably reveal messages from former "clients" of the company, either good messages or bad. If the company name is not easily found ("Smith & Associates"), enter the company's name in quotes on Google and perhaps add the word "scam." For instance, go to http://www.google.com and enter the following:
"Smith & Associates" scamIf that doesn't work, replace the "&" with the word “and” as follows:
"Smith and Associates" scamBe creative and experiment with other variations. You will probably find what you are looking for.
If you are not comfortable with any of this, get YOUR lawyer involved. He or she is experienced with all the issues of probate and can handle this easily. If a lawyer responds with a letter on his or her letterhead, asking the probate research firm to contact the lawyer on all future matters of the inheritance, any scammers will quickly run away. On the other hand, legitimate firms will be glad to contact the lawyer.
Anytime someone contacts you with claims that someone wants to give you money, be suspicious!