Locating heirs or beneficiaries can be a difficult task - especially if the will has named someone distantly related to the deceased, or  a family member who has gone missing, or is otherwise estranged. Fortunately, searching for the heir to an estate is not quite the daunting task it once was, thanks to modern conveniences like the internet and social media. All you’ll need is a computer, an internet connection, and a notepad. 

Read on to learn about how you can employ common tactics (and private investigator techniques) in your search:

Note: be sure to record your activities. If you are the executor of a will or an estate, you’ll need these in case you are unsuccessful in your search, and have to prove you exercised due diligence in your search.

Step 1: Gather Information

Before you start searching, you’ll want to gather any personal information that could be relevant to the heir. Ideally, you should be able to find the full name of the heir, along with their social security number - but almost any information is useful. If possible, gather documents and information from the deceased’s personal effects and attorney. Other information can likely be gathered in person from the friends and family of the deceased.

Useful Documents and Resources:

  • Birth Certificates
  • Marriage Certificates
  • Death Certificates
  • List of family members and their contact information
  • List of known friends and their contact information
  • Family correspondence
  • Employment records

Step 2: Ask Around

Technology may have come a long way, but people are still an extremely valuable source of information when it comes to locating someone Create a list of friends, family members, and professional contacts from the information in step 1, and work through the list contacting each in turn.

Be sure to ask each of them the following questions:

  • Are you aware of the heir’s whereabouts?
  • Where was the last address or place you think they were?
  • What contact information do you have from them, if any?
  • When did you last hear from them?

Often, it is possible to locate someone simply by calling around known contacts and asking for information. Failing that, you'll likely gain new information that will assist you in your search.

Step 2: Put the Word Out:

Advertising is a critical step in locating an heir. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend money on newspaper advertisments these days (although it's not a bad idea), as social media can be just as effective. The easiest way to do this is with on Facebook. Post a photo of the heir if you have one, and write some copy about why you're searching, and what you know. It doesn't hurt to include a quick request for people to share the post either.

Once you’ve pushed out your post, reach out to friends and family of the heir and ask them to share it - this way it will be much more likely to be seen by someone with information on the heir's whereabouts, or even the by heir themselves.

Step 3: Start Searching on Social Media

Social media networks are the perfect place to start looking for someone online - particularly if they are a friend or family member that you, or someone in your network may be connected to now, or in the past.

Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and classmates.com can help connect you with someone when you don’t have a phone number or address. Facebook is the best place to start, as it’s the most widely used social media platform in the US, with 79% of American internet users registered on it. Don’t stop there though -  be sure to search all major social media sites, including region or country specific ones where relevant.

Most social media services (like Facebook) will allow you to run a detailed search beyond just first or last name matching. For example, you can access Facebook’s advanced search features in the sidebar of your friend request page. It’s possible to search profiles by using names, locations, and even groups  - like the 1998 graduating class of a local school, for instance.

You should also try and find the profiles of friends or relatives of the person you're looking for, as they may be able to connect you with them. A bit of social engineering can really help your search along.

Step 4: Using Major Search Engines

Search engines remain one of the best ways to scour the internet for personal information.. Google, of course, is the leading search engine, but despite its dominance you should expand your search beyond it. Search engines aren’t identical, and will not return the same results. Each search engine uses a different index and search algorithm, and this will affect what information you find. You should never rely on just one search engine. Professional private investigators will search multiple search engines in order to find the best possible information on a person they’re investigating.

Try these search engines:

Meta search engines are a great way to search multiple search engines at the same time. Instead of using crawlers to index the web like Google and others do, they send queries to a variety of search engines, combine the results. Here are a few examples of meta search engines that are best for finding people:

You should also try advanced search techniques like boolean searching. Boolean logic can help you filter out the junk that isn't related to your search by allowing you to combine words and connectors to exclude certain results.

Here’s how it works: If you search for “Melanie Smith”, search engines will return results containing the words 'Melanie' and 'Smith' (further filtered and augmented by the search engine's fancy algorithms), and these results will likely contain plenty of irrelevant information. If you use ”Not” or “–“ before a term, then your search will exclude the web page that contains that term. If you search “Melanie Smith" using quotations then the search engine will search that exact phrase together.

Google has an extensive list of operators and other tips and tricks to help make your searches more powerful on their advanced search page. Other search engines will have their own specific operators, so be sure to look them up before you start using them.

Step 5: Search Public Records

If you need further historical information on the deceased to locate relatvies, or if the heir is proving difficult to find, you may also wish to resport to historical records - although at this point you may wish to skip to the next step and have a professional start searching on your behalf. Here are a few places that you can search for federal, state, and county records:

  • Social Security Death Index (just in case the heir has passed away). This is a list of people reported as deceased to the Social Security Administration. You can search this index through services like this one.
  • County Clerk of Court records. You may find records indicating addresses or other interests of the heir.
  • County Sheriff’s department's records
  • State Department of Corrections inmate search - in case your heir has been, or is currently an inmate. These can often be searched online. Here's California's for example.
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons - as above.
  • US Census Records. Only available for records before 1940, unless you are the heir of the person in question.
  • PACER. Good for court records.
  • National Archives. Particularly good for service records.
  • State Department of Corporation. Good for business and corporate records. Each state has their own database, here's a full list of them.
  • Relevant state's Department or Division of Licensing. If the person you're looking for has ever been licenced as an investigator or has practiced some other controlled profession, you might find useful detsails here. These are often found on the state government website - here's Florida's Division of Licencing for example.
  • Relevant county's Tax Assessor’s office. Good for property and tax records. Here's Clark County's, for example.
  • County Title and Land records

Step 6: Use a Professional

Sometimes, searches using open-source intelligence methods like those described above will hit a dead end. If you’ve exhausted your options (or your patience), it’s time to hire a private investigator and have them conduct the search for you.

Private investigators are skilled at finding people. Investigators have access to even more records than listed above through specialized databases. With these resources and an investigator's experience, almost anyone can be found

If you think you need help with your search, request a consultation with a case advisor or get your case started online here.

Danny Boice
Danny Boice

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