Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 20, 2023

Neumann finds solution with forensic geneology

Christine Neumann is a forensic genealogist who specializes in helping attorneys locate missing heirs for estate and probate cases. - Photograph provided

Once the purview of scientists and lab technicians, the word “forensic” has entered the mainstream through popular television procedurals like “CSI,” “Bones” and even “Dexter.”

But forensic genealogist Christine Neumann won’t be found analyzing blood spatters at a crime scene or puzzling over a corpse’s demise during an autopsy. Instead, she does her work in courthouses and the dusty backrooms of libraries, where she scours old records for clues that point to the locations of missing or unknown heirs.

Through her company, Discovering Connections, Neumann is offering members of the Chattanooga Bar Association a free phone consultation and 10% off her hourly rate.

Here, Neumann discusses the challenges of her work, why she loves it and some of her most memorable finds.

What is forensic genealogy?

“Family history research related to the law. Some people hear the word ‘forensic’ and ask if I use DNA to solve cold cases. But most of what I do involves missing and unknown heir research for estate and probate cases.”

How often do attorneys need to use a service like Discovering Connections?

“An attorney might have just one or two cases like this their entire career, or they might have a bunch. The way the world is now, with people moving and living in different parts of the country, it’s not that a person’s heirs are unknown, it’s that their uncle moved away 30 years ago and the family never heard from him again.

“Sometimes, a person had children but no siblings and the parents are deceased, and I’m looking for cousins. The attorney might even have a cousin come forward and say, ‘I’m an heir but I don’t know anything about the other side of the family.’”

What’s the biggest family tree you’ve found?

“In one case, a cousin had come forward and was working with the attorneys but they didn’t know anything about the maternal side of the family. It turned out the mom had 12 aunts and uncles and 50 first cousins.

“The gentleman was in his 90s when he died, so most of his cousins were also deceased. When I looked for the children of those cousins, that number exploded because each of those first cousins had several. There were over 150 heirs for a man who at the end of his life had no one around him.”

It sounds like you can never know what you’re getting into.

“Something that initially looks straightforward could explode. Maybe someone had a secret second family or put kids up for adoption. All kinds of things can complicate the situation.”

How did you become interested in this work?

“I’ve been interested in genealogy since I worked on my own family’s history as a kid. I loved talking with my grandparents and digging through old photos and records, but I never imagined I could form a business around it.

“But with the boom of the internet and the explosion of genealogy in the last 20 years, I realized a couple years ago that there is a business in it and I could do something I loved.

“I initially thought I’d focus on local history and families, but then a couple of probate attorneys from out of state asked me to find an heir. I was actually able to find them – which was exciting – and then one of the attorneys referred me to someone else and it took off from there.”

So you’re based in the Chattanooga area but your practice is nationwide.

“That’s the beauty of what I do. Even if I’m working for a person in Chattanooga and the person died in Chattanooga, they might have an aunt who lives in California and an uncle who lives in Florida. The nature of my work has me looking for heirs everywhere, so my clients come from pretty much everywhere.”

What’s the strangest part of your job?

“When I find out more about the families than the people involved know. This is their own family and they don’t know them.”

What challenges you the most?

“Cases don’t follow a pattern because families are complex. I come from a simple family; I have a mom, a dad and siblings. We’re a small family. But that’s not always how things are.

“In one really challenging case, there was a will that left everything to a woman’s brother, but she had two other deceased siblings who had children, and the court was requiring the attorney to notify the children to essentially say, ‘You’re not getting anything.’

“One of the siblings had a son they believed she put up for adoption as an infant. They didn’t know the child’s original name, father, or where he was born, so I was looking for someone with no name, no date of birth and no location.

“Sometimes, all I can do is tell the court I’ve looked everywhere and exhausted every resource and I can’t find them – and that’s what I thought was going to happen in this case. But I was able to track the woman through the timeline using records I could access – where she lived, where she worked – and developed a general picture of her life.

“Through that, I found someone who looked like she might have a close connection to her, so I contacted that person, and it turned out she was another child of hers that had been adopted. There were actually three of them and the family knew about only one.”

You must feel a nerdy satisfaction when unearthing something buried this deep.

“There’s a certain rush that comes with finally finding someone after a long search, especially when things weren’t straightforward in the beginning.”

Do you encounter problems with accuracy in records?

“More often than you might think I would. Not everybody tells the truth in records. They might have fudged some things, so I have to be creative and not take everything at face value.

“Some of the lies are fairly innocuous. I had one gentleman who was married at least four times. On every single marital record, he indicated he’d been married only once before. It’s likely what he told his new spouse. While that wasn’t a big deal, it can make you stop looking for other marriage records.

“In another case, an individual filed a petition for probate for his father’s estate and claimed to be the only child he knew of, even though he had six other full-blood siblings he knew of but was estranged from.”

Do you have the proverbial “one that got away” that haunts you?

“One of my first cases was very challenging. I found the woman’s entire maternal side – which was great – and I had her father’s name, date of birth and date of death. But that’s all my client knew. The woman’s aunt had raised her, even though her mom was still alive, but hadn’t adopted her, so there was no connection there.

“She never lived with her father, there were very limited records and I didn’t have access to most of the records that existed. Every state and entity has different regulations about who can access which records and when. And I can call the next county over and the rules will be different.

“So I couldn’t find the paternal side but I kept searching and kept searching because he had to be out there somewhere – and I finally found a newspaper announcement of her birth in Utah. There were no references to her mother ever being there, but it was definitely her.

“Her mother had an unusual first and last name and it listed the mother, father and child – all of whom had the same last name – and there was no way all these names could have come together with her exact date of birth.

“Unfortunately, the father’s name was Harry Gordon, and when you look at the 1950 census for Harry Gordon, there are something like 950 of them. That’s a brick wall. I got the piece that took so long to get and could go nowhere with it.”

How do you keep track of all the rules and regulations?

“A lot of it involves learning as I go. Any time I contact, for example, Catoosa County for a certain type of record, I enter who I contacted and how I acquired the record in a database.

“There are a lot of records online but the vast majority of records in the country are not digital.”

Why wouldn’t someone just create an ancestry.com account and do their own research?

“There’s a difference between forensic genealogy and traditional genealogy research. There’s more at stake in forensic genealogy, so your research needs to be on point.

“If someone is doing a regular Ancestry.com search and they tell you your great-great-grandfather is so-and-so, but they’re wrong, it’s not going to affect your life. But missing an heir or misidentifying an heir can have huge consequences and messy legal ramifications.

“So, a lot of care goes into my work. I double and triple check everything. And I don’t rely on one record; I look for two or three other records that corroborate the story. And I make sure everything makes sense in every way.”

Have you ever found an heir who inherited a large sum of money from a rich uncle they didn’t know they had?

“Maybe, but I don’t deal with the value of the estate, so I don’t know who receives what.”

Contact Christine Neumann at 219 237-9250 or christine@discovering-connections.com. Learn more about Discovering Connections at www.discovering-connections.com.