February 19, 2020 07:59:51
What would you do if a stranger called to break the news that you have just inherited a fortune from a relative you never even knew existed?
Genealogist Cassandra Seaborn, who works at the NSW Public Trustee and Guardian, makes those calls for a living and had plenty of people simply hang up on her.
“We do get people thinking that we are scammers out there to get their bank details,” she said.
For Ms Seaborn those phone calls are the result of months, sometimes years, of painstaking work to track down the rightful beneficiaries of unclaimed deceased estates which ended up in the hands of the NSW Trustee and Guardian.
She might be ringing to tell someone they have inherited a few thousand dollars in an untouched bank account, but other times long lost relatives will be informed they have just won the Sydney property lottery.
“Sometimes someone bought a house in Botany in 1950 and it was worth a pittance at the time, but now it’s Sydney and it’s worth a couple of million,” she said.
In the process of tracking down the rightful beneficiary Ms Seaborn and her team have often pieced together a mystery, spanning multiple generations across the globe.
“We get the hard ones, the hard nuts to crack,” said Ms Seaborn.
Family secrets might be unearthed in the process illegitimate children, affairs and other scandals.
“I have had one recently who had committed Centrelink fraud so he had about 20 different names, that was a fun one.”
The job requires Ms Seaborn to tread carefully when breaking the news.
Sometimes the person on the other end of the line may never have heard of the relative whose estate they may inherit, but that is not always the case.
“We’ve had some where they’ve burst into tears,” she said.
“They were wondering why their Christmas cards weren’t being answered and we’ve just had to tell them their Aunty Jean is dead.”
Other times, children who have been estranged from their parents discover they have been living down the street.
“We get some very, very sad cases,” Ms Seaborn said.
Many of the cases involve complicated searches through old war and immigration records held in databases like the National Archives, the Home Affairs Department or overseas government record caches.
“I’m working on one file at the moment that’s older than I am,” the 28-year-old said.
The estate belonged to a man from South Africa but previous enquiries had led to multiple dead ends.
Now new documents have became available overseas which meant Ms Seaborn was “closing in” on the case.
Until recently many of the estates traced overseas were from the post-World War II wave of immigrants who moved to Australia from Germany and Eastern Europe.
But increasingly the Trustee and Guardian is handling the estates of Australians born in Vietnam and China, and Ms Seaborn said tracing those records could be particularly challenging.
Her unit has over 800 cases on their books.
And despite all the people who do hang up on her, Ms Seaborn said they often called back.
“Curiosity usually gets the better of them,” she said.
First posted
February 19, 2020 05:16:51
stories from New South Wales