When and how should I hire a Professional Genealogist

Several people have asked over the past couple of years about hiring a professional genealogist. Should I hire one? How much does it cost to hire one? How do I find a professional?

Before I delve into that question these questions, I first have to state for the record that I and several other members of our board and membership are professional genealogists. Therefore, I do not want this article to appear to be self-serving or advertising for myself or anyone else. The points stated below are intended to help you determine if you want to hire a professional and when you should do it.

That said, let me start by saying that there are times when professional genealogists engage the services of other professional genealogists. Before they do though, they have done their homework so they know exactly what they want before retaining their services. Prior to hiring someone, you must have a good knowledge and evidence of what you know and an idea of what you are expecting the professional to do.

Reasons to hire
Obtain a specific document – Maybe you want a specific document like a Marriage or Death Certificate. You can go through Vitalchek© for the marriage record and pay an extra fee to that organization, hoping to get the correct one or you can hire someone to go get the correct one. Cook County, Illinois, which covers Chicago, has a website for downloading vital records, but they do not always give sufficient information to ensure you are getting the John Smith you are hoping for. I have been caught a couple of times, and after paying $15 each time, I now do far more research to try to ensure I am requesting the correct one.

However, there is no provision for deeds and other court documents, which are not already digitized and located on one of the many websites.

This is one of the most common reasons that professionals might hire another professional. Let’s say you find an abstract concerning a person or event of interest that states the original is at a particular state archive, in Libra 1, Folio A, pages 12-14. That particular state archives may offer you the option for an archives employee to make the copy and send it to you. There are some that have two sets of fees, one for out-of-state requests and a reduced price for residents of that state. Also, you will be committed to the cost even if it proves the provided reference is incorrect or they do not actually have the document(s). By hiring a local professional who routinely goes to that archives, you can be very specific about what you are looking for, avoid out of state fees, and the researchers will do a better job of getting the correct information for you.

Recently, with the customer’s approval, I requested such a service from the Iowa State Historical Library & Archives. The Library was the only place that had the original Naturalization Paperwork filed at an Iowa county courthouse in 1908. I first checked with the library to ensure they had the document and their estimated cost for service. The cost for obtaining all documents and having them mailed to me, $30.00. Before agreeing, I ensured they had what I was looking for, but there was still no guarantee that it contained the specific information I was researching.

Since we know that abstracts are not as reliable as transcripts, and transcripts are less reliable than the original, it is quite possible the abstract itself is incorrect. A professional will ensure you are getting what you are paying for. You might be looking for Henry Thomas, father of Samuel Thomas based on the abstract or index, and the actual document is about Thomas Henry, father of Samuel Henry. I have said many times, you will not find my first Georgia ancestor in any index due to an error made by a transcriptionist over 200 years ago. The Screven County Will Index book at the courthouse mistakenly wrote Gilbert Thomas instead of Gilshot Thomas. I caught the mistake when I found the newspaper announcement concerning the estate of Gilshot and the date lined up with the Gilbert listed in all the books.

Or, the abstract said Libra 1, Folio A and the abstract should have read, “Libra A, Folio 1.” If there is a Libra 1, Folio A, that is what the employee will send you and you may totally miss the information that is critical to your research.

The same problem pertains if the only copies are at a courthouse, county or otherwise. Many counties, especially rural ones, are not online. A large number may have had their old records microfilmed either by the State Archives or by the Latter Day Saints Church (LDS) or both. But access is still limited to either someone going to the State Archives, LDS Family History Center that has a copy of the microfilm , or someone going to the specific courthouse.

Let’s take the above example a step further. An employee of the archives or courthouse may or may not read a few records before and after the one you want, whereas good professionals will. Why you ask? Because they know that there is always a possibility of additional records pertaining to your research. You may be looking only for a specific probate record while the one immediately following it is an appeal of that estate to the probate judge to dismiss the executor (or equivalent) for cause. You may want that. And the very next record may be a guardianship record about any minor children involved and you might want that also. Professionals will try their best to get in contact with you immediately to get your permission to collect the additional records along with the specific one you requested.

Interpreting and using a specific document – Here I am not speaking of translating from a foreign language but interpreting the meaning of the documents. While there are some well-known professional genealogists who have law degrees, that degree is not required to understand most old legal documents. Professional genealogists have been reading these documents for years and fully understand what is and is not being said in them.

Whether it is a will, deed, sales or tax record, a professional genealogist can often better discern the meaning of the record than you because of their familiarity with such records and the geographic area. For example, why is a particular ancestor listed in an 1828 poll tax but not the 1826 when he lived there? Or why might someone be listed in the poll tax record but not required to pay? Maybe the deceased did not provide the name of his wife, who inherited the property. Are there other methods to learn her name? What does “tail-male” mean in this document? You may see a lot of very uncommon words or terms that require using both regular context and also time-period context.

Have you ever found records or documents that tend to contradict what you already had? What do you do when you have a grave marker indicating that the person died in 1850 but had more children over the next 4 years and signed his will in 1857? What about when you have the signed will of someone from 1808 who died in 1809, then you find another document saying they are dead in 1792? Professionals can take that objective look at apparently conflicting records and often resolve the conflict. In the former, my ancestor’s grave stone is simply incorrect; he died in 1860. In the latter, it was more proof that the 1808 will pertained to Junior and his father died in or before 1792.

Access to additional on-line information – You may not be willing to pay the money for a subscription to an on-line genealogy record site that professionals use on a regular basis. While there may be specific copyright restrictions against their downloading the documents and providing them to you, they can tell you where to find the originals. Plus, if there is no such restriction, they can download and provide the document or information you require.

Conduct specific research for any and all records pertaining to – your specific person, event, or family, etc. of interest. I have twice hired professionals in Delaware looking for any record pertaining to my ancestor’s land. The first one I hired was not to exceed x hours researching and came up with nothing. The second one I hired was to meet me at the archives where we researched together and still came up with nothing. You are probably thinking, “Wait a minute, twice you came up empty-handed and you are suggesting for us to consider hiring a professional, does not make sense.” If you are doing your research correctly, you are keeping a log of what records you have researched which came up negative, so you do not consider the same records on the next research trip. I also need to explain that the only existing records we have of this property in Delaware were written and recorded in Georgia. They all refer to the family land located in Middleton, New Castle County, DE. Also, the last known Thomas to live there moved while it was still a British Colony.

Again, I refer to courthouse research as I have a passion for researching there. I recently conducted a whirlwind trip to three southeastern Georgia counties in three days. I discovered that while virtually all of the books have been digitized and are available at the Georgia State Archives, there were also a few ledgers that were not scanned but contained information important to my research. Additionally, the originals may be a lot easier to read and interpret than the microfilmed versions. So it may be advantageous to have someone take a look. However, land records are not typically scanned, only certain probate records. Additionally, what is often not scanned are the actual original documents, only the transcribed or abstracted records annotated in the ledgers. Each courthouse has different rules about whether you may or may not see the actual originals. However, a local researcher who frequents that courthouse and knows the employees on a first-name basis, may have access you do not.

Break through a brickwall – I need to be careful here, as we are not magicians. However, a professional may be able to look over your notes and resources and give you some insight into interpreting what you have or more places to look. Because professional genealogists have a broad depth of experience and are constantly taking classes to learn additional methodology, they may be in a better position to give advice as a dispassionate third party.

Sometimes researchers become so overwhelmed with information that they do not know where to look first or how to prioritize the abundance of places to go to research. Again, a professional may be able to help you prioritize what you have for further research. This process might help keep you from chasing a dead end. Many professionals will provide limited advice for free but will also block out some one-on-one time for a small fee. It never hurts to ask.

You just don’t have the time – You may have spent a very long time researching something with little to no results or you are just way too busy to stay up late at night trying to research on-line. There are many reasons in this category to list. Since professional genealogists research for a living, they have the time to devote to your request.

Ok, what are the nuts and bolts to hiring a professional genealogist?
How do I find a professional? – I would recommend going to the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) website to look for someone who either specializes in the location, types of research, etc. that you are most interested in. The APG contains a wide list of professionals, and some may hold credentials as a Certified Genealogist (CG) or Accredited Genealogist (ICAPGen) , but these credentials are not required. There are plenty of top-notch professionals who for one reason or another have opted not get that certification or to let that certification lapse and stop paying the renewal fees.

How much does a professional cost? – Rates vary from as little as $15 per hour and up. You have to discuss fees with each professional you interview. Depending on what you want researched and your intended due date, they may have a minimum number of hours or might be more relaxed if you are not in a rush and can wait until their next planned trip to a specific location.

Some might ask why the cost is so high. They are independent contractors and not employees of a company and therefore lose almost 25% of their fees right off the top to the IRS. Plus they pay their own medical, dental, and other insurance. There is no company match for a 401k or other retirement plan. They also pay for their own supplies and equipment. And since we have a bad habit of wanting to eat, the rate charged must be sufficient to cover all of these.

You might consider asking if they will take a smaller fee in exchange for your permission to let them write and publish your research project in a periodical.

Anything else I should know before hiring a professional? – Do not be concerned if they send you a contract for you to sign. This is to spell out exactly what you want them to do, the fees to be charged, method of payments, timelines, etc. and it will cover both you and them from any legal repercussions. It is also imperative that you give them everything you have and know pertaining the area of research. I do suggest you read the contract carefully and consider having it reviewed at your expense by your attorney.

If you ask professionals to pursue specific information concerning your 3rd great grandmother and they spend a lot of time to bring you a report containing information you already had because you failed to tell them, you are still obligated to pay them and not hold them accountable. Good professionals will prod and push you to provide everything you know and whatever documentation you have on the person or point to be researched to avoid this type of situation, but they cannot read your mind. Also, if you hire them and you discover more while they are conducting the research, you need to immediately pass that on them to help prevent this type of situation.

Lastly, they may not be able to provide you with absolute direct evidence in the form of a marriage record, birth record, etc. but, if they are saying something as fact they can produce a “Proof Statement” based on indirect evidence. This is where their expertise and experience pays off. By combining bits and pieces from various documents and records, they can piece together sufficient evidence to draw a solid conclusion. However, any conclusion is always subject to change with the discovery of conflicting information later on.