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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 19, 2012 @ 9:13 am

    ‘Dead Money’: right on the money

    John Grenham

    Genealogy is spawning an entire range of television sub-genres. One of the most popular is now the fly-on-the-wall heir hunter documentary, following probate genealogists as they attempt to track down missing beneficiaries of the estates of individuals who die without leaving a will.

    RTE 1’s version, “Dead Money” (Tuesday, 7 pm), features Steve and Kit Smyrl, two brothers who run the Massey and King probate genealogy company in Dublin and each week covers a different family, with the duo piecing together a jigsaw of generations and contacting missing heirs

    The first problem is one common to all such programmes. How research really works is impossible to portray accurately on television. No one wants to watch a researcher staring down a microfilm reader for three hours. Or, more likely these days, repeatedly punching a computer monitor. But there are limits to how much glossing over is acceptable. In the first episode Steve picked a name from the telephone directory and found an heir at the other end of the line. The hair stood up on my head. Random cold-calling ranks on a level with the Ouija board as a genealogical research tool.

    There is also an unnecessary coyness about exactly how probate genealogists make money. It is straightforward and perfectly respectable: they race other researchers to identify surviving family, and take a percentage of the estate in return for revealing its details to the beneficiaries. “Dead Money” settles for a vague impression of saintliness.

    Nonetheless, the programme is utterly compelling. As Episode 1 was starting I was crossing the room and stopped to see what it was like. I was still standing in the same spot when the credits rolled. Family stories grip like nothing else, and the makers have capitalised on this superbly by focusing each episode on one unfolding family story. And RTE are running each instalment without any ad-breaks. Don’t start watching if you have anything else you should be doing.

    • John Grenham says:

      Steve informs me that most of Massey and King’s income actually comes from hourly commissioned research paid for by solicitors. My apologies for the inaccuracy.

    • JOD says:

      Saw it last night on the skybox. Riveting is not the word. I’d say never were two lawyers more willingly paid their fees. I’d go so far as to say I never thought I’d think there’s two lawyers do nothing but good. And very genuine interesting fellas they seemed. I’ll watch it again before commenting further there’s a few bits I missed.

    • JOD says:

      Sorry also they’re not lawyers they’re genealogical researchers good lady’s just informed me.

    • Paul Gorry, MAPGI says:

      Having watched two of the episodes of ‘Dead Money’ so far, I can’t see that there is any coyness about how probate genealogists make money. The viewer is not stupid. Obviously the Smyrls, as professionals, are paid for their work.

      If an estate isn’t claimed the State keeps the money. The State doesn’t look for heirs. Probate genealogists do the work in the hope of finding the heirs. They only get paid if they find the heirs and the heirs agree to go with them. The heirs would be unaware of their inheritance unless the probate genealogists had done the work on spec. That’s exactly the situation. Most of that is explained on the programme.

      You’re right – it’s perfectly respectable. But exactly how probate genealogists are paid and how much is between them and their clients.

      As for the research methods used, in relation to picking someone from a phone book, Steven Smyrl explained the circumstances. He didn’t say ‘Don’t try this at home’, but there was no need to. The programme is not instructing people on how to trace their ancestors in the way that other genealogy-related programmes supposedly do. This is probate research, not tracing your ancestors. The same rules don’t reply. Quite simply, whether it’s probate research or ancestral research, Steven Smyrl can run rings around any genealogist in Ireland. He is without doubt the most knowledgeable Irish genealogist on the planet. I can safely say that as I’ve worked in genealogy professionally for 33 years and I know all the contenders for that title.

      Paul Gorry, Member of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland

    • eliza horan says:

      how can one contact the brothers to look into my family ? watching the programme tonight and really enjoyed it and the outcome.
      thank you

    • John Grenham says:

      You can contact them via the Massey and King website, http://www.masseyandking.com/