The drilling rig is en route to your location and your land manager is breathing down your neck to lease the last remaining fee owners. The only problem: the owners cannot be found because they are likely deceased. Now what do you do? Carry the interests? Force pool? Drilling delays can be costly and carrying interests can be risky, so time is of the essence. Fortunately, there are a number of online genealogical tools available that might help you track down the heirs or devisees of the deceased owners.
Surprisingly, Google searches are a great starting point. In particular, rare names or unique spellings are helpful to locate information and, oftentimes, an obituary can be located by searching a decedent’s name and last known city or state of residence. Obituaries are generally accurate and provide a list of possible heirs or devisees. If an obituary is not located by a Google search, it might be found using another search engine, such as Yahoo or Bing.
If you know the decedent’s place of death and approximate date of death, you can search probate records. Some states, such as Colorado1, Montana2, New Mexico3, North Dakota4, Texas5, and Utah6, have websites which provide probate or other genealogical resources online. Individual counties typically maintain their own probate files. Where resources are not available online, you may ask the county court if there is a probate file for the decedent and, if so, request a copy of the file.
What about the more difficult searches? GenealogyBank.com, a subscription-based site, has a database of 6,500 newspapers with some newspapers going as far back as 1690. Generally, the earlier the date of death, the more difficult it is to find an obituary for the decedent. However, GenealogyBank.com may provide a death notice (indicating when and where the decedent died), a social security number, newsworthy stories, or birth or marriage announcements. If a social security number is located, it can be used to search the Social Security Death Index (free on several online genealogical websites, see below) to identify the date of the decedent’s birth and death, the town in which the decedent’s social security card was issued, and the decedent’s last place of residence. Any information gathered about the decedent, including relatives, dates of life events, places of life events, etc., can be used on other genealogical websites to locate potential heirs or devisees.
Obituaries and genealogical information may also be available on FindAGrave.com. However, this website is best known for its vast library of headstone images. These images generally include the name of the decedent’s spouse and the decedent’s and his or her spouse’s birth and death dates (as well as the location where the decedent was buried).
The largest of all the genealogical websites is Ancestry.com, which claims to have over 6 billion records available online. Another genealogical website, FamilySearch.org, is particularly helpful for decedents who resided in Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. There are countless other genealogical blogs and websites to search, many of which focus on a particularly feature such as religion, national origin, ethnic background, etc. The larger genealogical websites, including Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, have census records available up until 1940.7 These websites also include marriage records, birth records, military records, and family trees. Family trees are created by individuals, which means they are not always accurate or complete. However, they are a great source for locating possible heirs or devisees because they may include names of descendants, biographies, and family histories. As an added feature, some websites allow communication with the person who provided the genealogical information to the website.
The more information that you can use in a search, the better the chance that: (i) you will find the decedent’s heirs or devisees and (ii) they will be the right persons. With any luck, you will gather enough information to track down possible heirs or devisees to obtain leases or send participation letters prior to drilling. Although these online genealogical resources may not finish the job, since title curative will likely be required, they can start you down the right path.
2http://www.montana-genealogy.com/Montana-Probate-Records.htm. No subscription required, but the website links to third-party subscription websites.
5http://www.texas.gov/en/discover/Pages/topic.aspx?topicid=/records. Records available for select counties only.
6http://www.utcourts.gov/xchange. Subscription required.
7Census records are sealed for 72 years after the census is taken, which means they are currently available for the 1940s and back.