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Probate Genealogy in France


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In Article 745, the Civil Code of France states that, if there be neither spouse nor children who can inherit, then "collateral relatives beyond the sixth degree may not inherit", which has been taken to mean that said collaterals up to the sixth degree may do so. Article 716 of the Code Civil states that "the ownership of a treasure belongs to the person who finds it among his or her possessions; if the treasure is found among the possessions of another, then half belongs to the person who found it and half to the person in whose possessions it was found.

Et voilà!  From these two articles, you have the birth of the profession of la généalogie successorale, French probate genealogy. How does it work?

Firstly, one must know how to determine relationships to the sixth degree as it is accepted in the Civil Code. Between the deceased and any relative who would be an heir, one must first find the common ancestor whom they share. One then counts the number of generations between the deceased and the common ancestor and between the potential heir and the common ancestor and adds the two together. If the result is six or less, a share in the jackpot is possible; if it be more than six, no luck.

For example: between an uncle who has died and a niece who hopes to inherit is the common ancestor of the uncle's parent who is also the niece's grandparent. The number of generations between the uncle and his parent is one; between the niece and her grandparent is two; the degree of relationship between the uncle and the niece is three. The niece is an heir.

Probate genealogists in France generally are contacted by notaires who find themselves with an estate that cannot be distributed as heirs cannot be located. They must find all possible heirs and any legatees named in a will, if there were one. If they miss a single person who has a right to a portion of the inheritance; all distribution will be invalid. In their genealogical research, they do much as we have explained here (and in our book):

  • Beginning with the death registration, they find all relevant marriage, birth and death registrations of all relatives to the sixth degree.
  • Will of the deceased's parents, grandparents and siblings are read, to identify possible heirs in the family.
  • Military conscription lists, the registres matricules, are read to find any men or women who served in the military and to obtain more detail about them.
  • Recensements, the census returns, are also examined.
  • In a pinch, they have been known to chat up the neighbours for gossip, especially helpful in finding children born out of wedlock.
  • As a last resort, they might use a private detective, but as the two professions are often at daggers drawn, this will usually only be to have the investigator find an address, never to allow him or her to become involved in the genealogical research.

In the above list, important differences in the modus operandi of the probate genealogist that are not followed by the family genealogist are:

  • We try not to rely on gossip.
  • We usually have no call for a private investigator.
  • We usually do not have a notaire to gain for us the permission to see civil registrations that are less than seventy-five years old.

Speed is essential, for the law in France is that estates must be settled within six months of the death. Probate genealogists may, however, request an extension to that if they can prove that they are not dawdling but are truly hot on the trail of an heir or two.

This is an unregulated profession in France, but when questioned about it, probate genealogists assure one that they are très sérieux. Their work comes from notaires, who are regulated; and they take out professional insurance, which seems to us to be neither here nor there insofar as regulation is concerned.

It is an old profession, having begun in about 1830. It is also small, with only about one hundred probate genealogy offices in the country, employing about five hundred genealogists. It is also a proud profession, with its members seeing it as something along the lines of a para-legal profession and certainly not commercial. "You will never find us knocking on someone's door trying to sell a family genealogy tree," snipped one probate genealogist in an interview. Those trees do, however, appear in the documentation concerning disbursement of the estate, as explained here.

The essential point, naturally, is the fee, which the unwitting heir must agree to pay (unless he or she were to renounce all claim to inheritance) before being told about  his or her connection to the person who left the estate. It can range between ten and forty per cent of each heir's share (calculated after the taxes and notaire's fee are paid), and up to sixty per cent if the estate be very large. According to our calculations, the remaining inheritance should rarely rise above forty-five centimes.

We are, lastly, stumped by the claim of the probate genealogist to comply with Article 716, for that hefty sixty per cent is more than the half of a treasure allowed by the article. That same Article makes it very clear that the definition of treasure is "anything hidden or buried which no one can claim as his property and which is discovered purely by accident."

Watch a probate genealogist in action:




©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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