The investigator who traced the family of a couple found dead in their Tipperary bungalow did it using skills he honed connecting people with their rightful inheritance. He talks here about his unusual line of work
Padraic Grennan is what’s popularly known an ‘heir hunter’. He prefers ‘probate genealogist’. Whatever the term, it’s a job that throws up many surprises and brings delight to long-lost relatives when he tells them they have a surprise inheritance.
The Drogheda investigator put his skills to a different use in recent weeks as he traced relatives of the English couple who died in rural Tipperary and lay undiscovered for up to 18 months.
Every year, thousands of people die without a will, or their beneficiaries are hard to trace. Probate genealogists set out to find them. Sometimes it comes down to calling door to door, to tell people they may inherit a fortune. They can be met with incredulity and the assumption that the promise of money is a hoax.
But when they approach beneficiaries, they should already have done their homework. “If I was knocking on your door, I would have your entire family history,” Grennan says. “I could tell you more about your family than you actually know yourself.”
The Sunday Independent reported last weekend that Grennan had tracked down the next of kin of Nicholas and Hilary Smith on his own initiative. When discovery of their bodies in Cloneen, Co Tipperary, was reported, he and his team at the firm Erin Research sought out the couple’s family members, using public records such as marriage certificates.
He discovered that Hilary Smith had a 61-year-old son from an earlier relationship, and Nicholas Smith had a surviving brother.
It is not the first time that a probate genealogist has used their expertise in this way. The body of Stephen Corrigan lay undiscovered in Rathmines in Dublin for almost a decade after he went missing in 2011. Foul play was not suspected. His only known relatives when he died were his mother Hanna and brother Edward, who was six years younger. By the time the body was discovered, both had died.
A garda appeal for other relatives to come forward was unsuccessful, but a first cousin was traced by Finders International, a probate genealogy firm.
In finding relatives of Nicholas and Hilary Smith, Grennan deployed many of the techniques that he would use in finding the beneficiaries of inheritance.
“Being in the business that I am in, the case caught my eye,” he says. “I thought to myself, can I do anything here? In a lot of these cases, we are working on spec. Sometimes we get a fee. Sometimes we don’t. In this particular instance, I was not too worried because it was a high-profile case.”
Grennan was able to find the identity of the couple before they had been named publicly, using the location of the property and looking in the Land Registry.
“The first step was to look for a marriage cert,” he says. “On every marriage cert, there are clues — the father’s occupation is listed, and the age of the mother and father.
“We were able to find out the date of birth, and find the birth certificate. We were able to check for siblings and we sent off to the UK for certificates.”
At first, it seemed as though three first cousins were Hilary Smith’s nearest next of kin.
“There were no obvious children from the marriage, but did she have a child before she got married? [We discovered] there was a child from a previous relationship.”
Grennan says the priority now is to give the couple a dignified burial or cremation.
He believes that his investigative skills can play a role in addressing the housing crisis, because of the large number of empty properties where the owner may be unknown.
As a sideline, he traces the ownership of homes that may have been vacant for many years and runs the website emptyhomes.ie. People might want to buy an unoccupied property, but the owner can’t be found.
Grennan is dealing with the case of an empty home in the south-east after an elderly farmer without any children died.
“As far as he was concerned, he had no relatives and his neighbours used to look after him. He left a valuable estate. We became aware of it at the beginning of the pandemic. We researched it and we found nine first cousins of this individual — and each of those will benefit from a share of that estate when it is ultimately distributed. There are three different plots of land.”
Many of the cases of lost and forgotten relatives offer insights into Ireland’s social history over the last half century. Family members emigrate, and gradually lose touch with their relatives back home, particularly after a parent has died. Grennan says there may have been a big falling-out in the family. There may have been a dispute over land, relationships could have gone wrong, or perhaps there were extramarital affairs. Spouses may have divorced and remarried.
In most cases, Grennan is hired by solicitors to track down relatives who may be entitled to a share of an estate. He says the typical value of an estate may be the property — about €200,000 or €300,000 — plus a small amount of savings in a credit union account. Grennan’s background is in legal services and he worked for a time in a pub business. He was drawn to probate genealogy through an interest in family history.
Erin Research employs nine people. Payment to probate genealogists can depend on the difficulty of the case. There may be a fixed fee, or in some cases the beneficiary might pay a commission.
As well as public records such as births, marriages and death certs, probate genealogists use websites such as Ancestry.com, Roots Ireland and Irishgenealogy.ie. They may also search newspaper archives.
The discovery of a death of a mysterious relative and an inheritance may not just be a matter of money. It can be a time of shocking discoveries. Whole families and unknown relatives might suddenly appear.
Grennan is working on a case involving three people in Canada who are beneficiaries of an estate. They were surprised to discover that their father had been previously married and that they have a half-sister that they never knew about.
Searching for rightful heirs can be a competitive business, particularly in Britain. The work of probate genealogists has been popularised by the BBC programme Heir Hunters, where investigators race to track down beneficiaries.
Fascination with mysterious and unknown heirs in Britain is encouraged by the publication of a list of unclaimed estates known as the “bona vacantia” (a Latin term for goods or property without an apparent owner).
The list is published online by the British treasury. At any one time there may be over 8,000 estates included. There are usually many names of Irish-born people, who may have died alone in Britain without leaving a will.
Grennan says it would make sense to publish a similar list in Ireland. Here, if estates remain unclaimed, they are ultimately passed to the State, but the list of these assets remains shrouded in mystery.
If no beneficiaries can be found, the person’s estate, including property and savings, are lodged to the intestate estate funds deposit account, held in the Department of Public Expenditure.
Occasionally, cases of unclaimed estates are advertised by the government in newspapers, but Grennan believes it would make sense for the entire list to be published. He says that in the vast majority of cases, a probate genealogist could find the beneficiaries.
In 2015, there was speculation that a list of unclaimed estates might be published, but it never happened. At the time, it was reported that €2.4m was held by the government in an intestate estate funds deposit account.
A list of unclaimed estates of Irish-born people who died in Britain taken from the “bona vacantia” is published by Finders International at unclaimedestates.ie. More than 400 unclaimed estates of Irish-born people are listed on the website in alphabetical order with the name of the deceased person, their date of birth and death and where they lived in Britain. Some of the estates remain unclaimed over 30 years after the person’s death.
Maeve Mullin, director of Finders International in Dublin, says its cases frequently cross national boundaries.
“A lot of the cases we work with are of people who died in the UK, America, in Australia or elsewhere and we are asked to contact the Irish beneficiaries,” she says. “Or an Irish estate is being distributed and different members of the family have emigrated, and we have to do research in those countries. We locate people in all sorts of weird and wonderful places.”
While probate genealogists rely on public records and detective work, occasionally they have to seek information about an individual by going door-to-door, perhaps to their last known address, and talking to people in the area.
Like Grennan, Mullin comes across cases where families make remarkable discoveries when unexpected beneficiaries emerge. “When there are surprises in families, it can be difficult for people to get their head around it,” she says.
One recent case she worked on involved a man who had married in Ireland and had two daughters and a son. When the family was investigated, it emerged that he had also had a previous marriage in Britain with two sons. He had never told his Irish family about his first one.
There is a sadness to some of the probate genealogists’ stories. In one case dealt with by a colleague of Mullin’s, her company was asked to find a woman whose name appeared on the title deeds of a house belonging to a man who had died. After some effort, they tracked her down.
“The story was that he had been engaged to this lady, but her family disapproved of the relationship. He had bought a house and put his fiancée’s name on the deeds of the house.
“But because her family wanted her to break off the relationship, she did. She married someone else, and never knew that her name was on the deeds of his home. He never got married.”
Her name stayed on the deeds for the rest of his life. “She was actually quite upset because she had hoped that he had moved on in his life in the same way as she had.”
The woman said she did not want money out of his estate, and was happy to have her name taken off the deeds.