New Zealand Law Society - The will-finders: Genealogy Investigations

The will-finders: Genealogy Investigations

For the past five years, journalists Fran Tyler and Deborah Morris have used their joint talents of mystery solving, and their extensive court reporting experience, to help both families and lawyers trace lost family members and beneficiaries of wills and estates.

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Every lawyer heaves a heavy sigh when they find a will and realise they have no way of locating or contacting beneficiaries, descendants or executors.

For a long time, frustrated lawyers have hired private investigators to track down beneficiaries and family members at great cost to their firms.

Enter Genealogy Investigations.

For the past five years, journalists Fran Tyler and Deborah Morris have used their joint talents of mystery solving, and their extensive court reporting experience, to help both families and lawyers trace lost family members and beneficiaries of wills and estates.

Initially a part-time venture, the pair worked on queries in their spare time between working for a newspaper. But during the Covid-19 lockdown this year, Fran and Deb decided to formalise their passion for investigating into a full-time business that would help others.

This is something that is “quite unique in New Zealand,” Fran says.

“It’s so interesting and we’ve got to meet some fantastic people. And it’s really fun,” Fran says.

Photo of Fran Tyler and Deborah Morris
Fran Tyler and Deborah Morris

Why did you choose to work in journalism?

Fran: “I decided to enrol in a journalism course after spending three years studying to be a teacher and realising teaching was not something I really wanted to do. I really wanted a job that was going to be rewarding and where I could make a difference for people and where when I went to work, I did not know what the day was going to bring me. I had two choices really, joining the Police and working really unsociable hours, or being a journalist. I chose journalism.

“One of my first journalism jobs involved spending entire days at the Porirua District Court writing a full-page court report for a newspaper and I was just fascinated by the stories that I would hear there. I also formed some great relationships with some of the local police in writing news stories about local crimes and by virtue of that was privy to how police investigations actually work.”

Deb: “I always wanted to be a journalist. I can’t remember ever wanting anything else. I was an old-style cadet, learning from the ground up. In the last 24 years I have specialised in doing court, including high profile trials, but it’s often about the story behind the court case too.

In fact, covering court is how Fran and I met while we were each doing the same round for rival newspapers. With the merger of the Dominion and Evening Post we ended up working side by side and discovered just how well we work as a team.

How did you become interested in mystery solving and crime?

Fran: “I have always been really interested in solving crime mysteries. Possibly it stemmed from reading whodunnits as a child, perhaps that in combination with having two police officers in the family. My interest in genealogy actually stemmed from my interest in solving mysteries and predated my journalism career by several years. My father never spoke about his family very much, so when I was about 12 years old, I asked my policeman uncle what he could tell me. He rattled off a couple of things and then told me that one of my great aunts had been murdered, but he said he didn’t know any details as it was a bit of a skeleton in the family closet. I was absolutely hooked. There was no way I would rest until I found out all the grisly details, and that involved having to build a family tree to find out, first of all, which great aunt it was.”

Deb: “I was a police reporter in Hawke’s Bay before I moved to Wellington. Along with that and court work, I guess I ended up fascinated by the how and why of a crime. Genealogy came about differently. I was interested in my ancestors, but just as much I was interested in their stories. Fran’s story about her murdered great aunt is a good example and actually led to us discovering, 20 years after we met, that we are related by marriage.”

Tell me a bit about how you both went from journalism to genealogy investigation?

Fran: “For about the past five years Deb and I have been doing a bit of work in the area of helping people with genealogy-related mysteries. It started about five years ago with helping locate the beneficiary of an insurance policy and then with helping someone find their birth father starting with only the father’s name and that he was maybe in New Zealand and then by word-of-mouth it just snowballed really. It was during the Covid-19 lockdown that we would make this mystery-solving thing something more concrete, so we set up Genealogy Investigations.”

Deb: “We’re lucky in that we found early on that not only do we work well together, but that our skills complement each other. Knowledge too of how to research something is useful. Just because you can use Google, doesn’t mean you know how to use it to its best advantage.”

What is the primary focus of Genealogy Investigations?

“Primarily, Genealogy Investigations helps lawyers identify and locate beneficiaries of estates whether they are in New Zealand or much further away, but we also help people understand and use their DNA test results to find family members.

“Most of the deceased estate work we do is for law firms, but we have also found beneficiaries for a private executor. It’s not just beneficiaries that we have found; we have also located executors who have been unable to be traced and we have done some work finding descendants of property owners.”

How have your journalism skills transferred over into your genealogy work?

Fran: “We have quite a unique set of skills developed through years of investigative crime reporting and genealogy. We both know our way around genealogy resources and through our crime reporting work, which involved having to track down people for news stories, we also knew how to use other resources to find people – and to think outside the square.”

Can you explain the difference between what you do and how a private investigator would work on genealogy tracing?

“We guess the main difference between Genealogy Investigations and a private investigator is that we have a more specific focus. Our sole focus is identifying and locating people, and usually, in our work, that involves some genealogy research and some tracing people expertise.

Private investigators also do surveillance and security work, which is not part of our business at all.”

Can you explain your process and how it helps lawyers in their will and estate work?

“There are two processes involved in helping lawyers in wills and estates work.

“In an intestate estate situation, the obvious need is to identify who the next of kin is. We research and build a family tree to identify who those people are and then find contacts for them. This can be quite a difficult task if you don’t have a lot of experience in that area and a number of lawyers have said to us that they prefer to hand that work over to us as we can get it done much more quickly. In a situation where there is a will but a named beneficiary cannot be located we put our skills to work to try to locate that person.

Can you discuss your most complicated case?

“We don’t often end up with simple cases as the reason they have been given to us is that they are complex.

“A number of really complicated cases come to mind, but probably one of the most difficult was trying to locate an elderly gentleman who had moved to Australia several years ago and whose family had lost contact with him. The family had earlier contacted Police to try and find him but they had been unsuccessful.

“We searched several databases, sent off a huge number of enquiries, searched cemetery records just in case he had died, literally tried everything. In the end we had to tell the client that we had failed. It was a huge dent to our pride as well as it ruined our perfect record. Some weeks later we received an email back from one of the organisations we had contacted stating that they knew where he was. As far as we are aware the estate has now be settled.”