For a variety of reasons, I am regularly commissioned to find missing people in my work at Research Roots. When someone has died, I may be asked by a solicitor or accountant dealing with probate to find someone named in a will or, when no will exists, to construct a family tree and locate surviving beneficiaries to an estate. We may even have contacted you as a possible beneficiary (for more information, please see here).
A living relative may sometimes be traced to help with a medical emergency, such as a transplant, or to be reunited with someone with a terminal illness. We also work with registered support agencies in cases of adoption. In other cases, the motivation may be simply to reconnect a family, or connect for the first time, to find out more about a shared family history or to ask a specific question. The reasons are various, and the circumstances seldom the same.
Many people don’t know where to start with tracing living relatives, but the truth is it has never been easier to track down living people and you don’t necessarily need specialist tools. As a talk I attended this weekend reminded me, there are a number of cheap and easy avenues you can try before contacting a research professional.
Find people for free
- Telephone book or its online version. While it is estimated that more than 45% of people in the UK are now ex-directory, the telephone book remains a good place to start research. Also try 118 118’s People Finder.
- Write letters. It’s always worth trying good, old fashioned snail mail when seeking out living relatives. Write to old addresses and any associated people who may be able to help your search. Letter writing also puts the recipient under less pressure, especially if the reason for your contact is quite sensitive (see below).
- Check with the neighbours. Neighbours can often be a good source of information when the person you are searching for has moved away or died. They may not be able to give you specifics, but they can often give you enough detail to send you in the right direction.
- Google search. Never underestimate the power of a Google search! Enter as much detail as possible including names, places, addresses, company information, occupation and try different permutations of words. It’s often amazing what comes up!
- Facebook. With 35m members in the UK alone (approx 53% of the population), Facebook is an incredible tool for tracking down relatives a this country as well as overseas. It also manages the process of making contact quite well as people have the option not to respond.
- Genes Reunited has over 11m members, often with considerable family information attached.
- LinkedIn, which now comprises an estimated 20% of UK professionals, is an increasingly important tool for finding living people especially, say, if you have a name, know roughly where someone is living and what they do for a living. LinkedIn often complements publicly available company records.
How to approach living relatives
Of course, these sources do not always yield the answers you’re looking for. Sometimes specialist experience, skills and data sources are required to find people and this is where companies like us can help. The point is, don’t discount the obvious in the first place.
And, finding someone is only half the story. A great deal of our work at Research Roots is concerned with managing the process of making contact with living beneficiaries or relatives. Whatever the circumstances, an amount of delicacy and tact is required, as well as an understanding of how the recipient may feel about being contacted or about the information you may have for them. Not everyone wants or is pleased to be found, and people’s privacy must be respected. It is a fundamental principle of UK law that people have the right to go missing.
Unless you know the person you’re trying to reach very well and are confident they will be pleased to hear from you, I recommend if possible an approach by letter in the first instance. When I trace people, I prefer not to put them under pressure by asking them to answer questions there and then. People are often suspicious when put on the spot, and in some cases you will only get one chance. A well-judged letter telling them why you are contacting them, providing sufficient information to reassure them that you are who you say your are and that your contact is genuine, will help to allay most suspicions. If you must phone or Facebook message, it is often best to ask for a contact address so that you can write to properly explain the nature of your enquiry.
In many cases, people are surprisingly helpful and willing to talk. Gauge your individual situation carefully and don’t forget that information regarding people who are long dead may be painful or provocative.
Depending on the nature of your search, you may find it preferable to use a researcher or intermediary company like us to help you through the process sensitively and discreetly, making sure that all the facts are correct before making contact. In adoption or other sensitive cases, we can also put you in touch with specialist counsellors and registered support agencies.