5 Questions with a Forensic Genealogist

By Sunny Jane Morton Premium

When you hear the term “forensic genealogy,” do you picture the cast of “CSI” dusting your old family Bible for fingerprints? Learn what this field of genealogy is really all about from Leslie Brinkley Lawson, president of the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy.

1. What does a forensic genealogist do?

We research cases that have legal implications. In practice, that means heir searching, quiet title research, name changes, oil and mineral rights, adoptions, repatriation—those kinds of things.

2. How did you find this niche?

A local attorney knew he wasn’t finding all the heirs to an estate. He had found five or six. He called me, and we ended up with some 72 heirs. I had such a good time I decided to turn my business to a legal focus. Now I do work for attorneys all over the country.

3. What special skills does a forensic genealogist need?

We have to look up laws and access a lot of records, whether they’re open or closed. We have to be good at finding living relatives—not just dead ones. Otherwise, we just need to focus on where we’re going and keep good track of where we’ve been in the research process.

4. Any tips for us everyday genealogists?

Realize that every family has fractured lines: you just don’t realize where the fractures are until someone dies. And people hide in plain sight. Use every tool available to you to find them. My website’s Forensic Toolbox has resources for all 50 states, vital and other records, like how to find prison inmates.

5. What’s the best part about what you do?

I get to talk with people all over the country and hear their stories. But the most fun is when I can reunite living families. One time a family could plan a family reunion because I was able to locate them all.

From the December 2013 Family Tree Magazine

New course: Get Started with DNA: From Testing to Results

By the end of this 4-week Family Tree University course starting Apr. 26, you’ll be able to make strategic decisions on what tests you and your relatives should take so you can identify and track down your ancestors’ records.