OSINT Blog / Post

May 21, 2024

Investigating Heirs

I remember watching the video a dozen or so times, frustrated by an old photo of an unidentified male appearing for only a fraction of a second. This would turn out to be the “unknown father” listed on both the deceased child’s birth and death certificate. The same father the mother had gone to great lengths in denying any knowledge of their identity or whereabouts. She even signed an affidavit to strengthen her stance. The photo proved to be her first mistake when I used it to locate the father’s Facebook profile. The second mistake, cashing child support checks she continued to regularly receive from the father. Her young child may have just died tragically, but due course for this type of investigation, people do strange things when greed, a life insurance policy, in this case, becomes a factor.

This type of heir search, where the client is an insurance carrier or legal entity as opposed to the claimant, relies heavily on passive OSINT. As an investigator, I am unable to make direct contact with family members of the deceased. It is also a smorgasbord of investigative types, testing your wit, your attention to detail, and your ability to stomach some horrifying scenarios. Like when an SUV explodes at the scene of an accident, taking a man’s high school sweetheart and four children. Or when poorly installed equipment falls on a father of three a week before Christmas. I can attest autopsy reports are not for the faint at heart.

Our case begins with a modified version of a skip trace: we conduct a geofence on the incident itself since this type of case commonly involves some type of pending litigation. We comb through dozens of media and news articles, piecing the tragic scene together and collecting any relevant data gleaned from journalists. This is the difference between open-sourced data and open-source intelligence. Whereas open-source data is simply all publicly available information, OSINT is the process of gathering, cleaning, and analyzing this data with a purpose. Also common with an heir search is the lack of information you are given to start with. Referrals often lack basic data such as a correctly spelled name, a date of birth, country of origin (a good chunk of these cases end up being international), or even a description of how the subject died. 

You often start with a geofence in hopes of obtaining just enough data points so you can successfully locate the rest of the subject’s details within a data broker. Once successful, you can begin the cross-examination of the subject’s information across multiple online databases, creating a foundation upon which your investigation can be built upon. This part of the process also includes searching obituaries and memorials on the chance you’ll get lucky. Less than five percent of all heir searches I conducted ever had a well-written obituary, but it feels like you've struck gold when you happen upon one. 

The next step can be a real doozy: the court record search. Our initial emphasis is placed on probate and family court cases. It’s in this phase I once stumbled upon a woman who intended to divorce her wealthy husband until she found out he was terminal. She dragged out the divorce proceedings long enough for him to pass away and then liquidated his assets, preventing his children from inheriting his properties. As this part of the investigation unfolds, we end up searching for marriage and divorce records, alimony and child support judgments, probate hearings, bankruptcy documents, and will retrieve the death certificate for our subject. This lays the groundwork for ordering birth certificates if proven necessary.  The obituary read “faithful husband of fifty years and father of two” but after discovering five mistresses and sixteen plus children, birth certificates became fundamental to one of my cases.

The asset check and potential business search portions of our case are a bit more simplistic. They involve going through current and past property deeds, transfer details, and property assessments. They also may involve reading over articles of incorporation/organization in addition to statements of information. However, my objective is not to determine the subject’s net worth. My goal is to locate any potential heirs. So I approach this documentation differently than I would otherwise, with my focus on identifying people who were close to my subject, and then defining their level of connection: Friend? Immediate family? Extended family? Business partner?         

I always end with a broad social media sweep. If all else has failed to this point, this is my last resort. In the case of international heir searches, this is my primary method of research. It is vital I have done the other portions of my investigation correctly. By now, I tend to have a good understanding of my subject’s ethnicity (vital especially if they come from a culture with multiple last names), his birthplace, and a vague idea of his family relations. The use of keywords in my search typically proves beneficial. Additionally, if my initial searches for the subject led me to a dead-end, I then select possible relatives for the subject who have the most unique names. To avoid long trips down multiple rabbit holes, it is imperative I stick to the objective of my case: identify potential heirs. I am looking for people who were close to my subject and then I work on establishing what their relation was to my subject.  

Proper documentation of my findings is crucial because the entire case rests upon due diligence. I don’t have to confirm every heir, but I do need to satisfy legal requirements showing I went through the necessary steps to locate the heirs. The client must be able to prove due diligence was conducted to identify potential heirs. There have been times, as the litigation proceeded, where questions have come back to me as an investigator, and if I had not followed documentation protocol, I would have failed to show due diligence. However, since my thorough analysis summary was solely based on evidence, and not conjecture, and my findings were always well documented, I was able to provide my clients with both peace of mind and a detailed report. This, in turn, ensured the cases of my clients would be a success.       

As you can see, heir searches are not an easy undertaking. They are time-consuming, mind-numbing, and often, gut-wrenching. They challenge you, the investigator, in multiple facets. And the importance of documentation and due diligence cannot be overstated. Schedule a Skopenow demo today and find out how we can save you time, improve your results, perfect your reports, and positively impact the overall quality of your investigations.