Genealogical Business Agreements and Contracts (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Agreements and Contracts

The very best advice we can give you on this topic is to read carefully the “Executing Contracts” chapter in Professional Genealogy. It is very important to clarify client goals or instructions, research authorization and time or expenditure limitations.

Professionals who enter the research-for-hire field without a business plan or forward thinking may never have considered this aspect of their business. They rely on a verbal agreement with a client or on their exchange of correspondence. Indeed, many professionals accept a client’s return letter with a check as authorization to work, and as an agreement with the researcher’s terms and proposal.

Today, most experienced professionals provide a potential client with all the information they need to know in advance—about fees, an estimate of overall time, waiting period for a report and a specific research proposal—in writing. Acceptance by the client—in writing—is a valid agreement in many situations. The information sheet, or rate sheet mentioned earlier is a place where you could add space for signatures, asking them to return a signed copy to you.

An intermediate step between the exchange of written communications and a legal contract is a letter of agreement, or letter of engagement. Basically, it gives all the information as above, but requires the client to return a copy with her signature.

Some professionals will go the extra step of having a prepared contract form for both parties to sign. It spells out the rights and obligations of both parties and is an enforceable contract if the need arises. It needs proper legal advice to formulate. You must pay attention to a host of details such as compensation, confidentiality, copyright and possible future usage of the product, disclaimer and so on; in other words, protecting the rights and responsibilities of both parties. While some of it can be standard boiler-plate language, obviously a large portion of detail must be tailored to individual cases.

Will such a legal contract intimidate or deter a potential client? Your business judgment has to consider this. How do we know when such a step is in our best interests? Some suggestions:

  • if the client expects it
  • when the requested project appears lengthy and complicated
  • when dealing with a corporate or legal entity

Use common sense! What works best for you in any given situation is how you should proceed regarding this issue.


However you are being paid, be meticulous in tracking or logging your time for each client. Remember that spending time with them in person, on the telephone or by email counts too!

It is customary to ask for a retainer in advance. Some professionals insist on complete advance payment for x-number of hours. Probably most of us require at least a percentage of the proposed research (and report) hours which means billing for the remainder, so a blank invoice template is another timesaver. Still others may fully invoice a long-term client at the end of an agreed research-and-report period—usually only when mutual trust and good faith have been established.

You can expect some clients in other countries to want to pay you in their currency, which proves to be cumbersome with fluctuating international exchange rates. Your own bank may have distressingly high charges for converting foreign currency. Suggesting money orders in your currency, obtained at their end, is one solution. Some professionals have been pleased with an Internet banking service, such as PayPal . It is a free service that “works seamlessly with your existing credit card and checking account ...” and touts security of personal information. Being able to track the payment is an attractive feature.

These suggestions work in reverse as well, if you need to send money to a foreign researcher or to order products from a supplier who does not accept credit cards.

Client Scheduling

When you first begin your new business, you may have time on your hands and be free to tackle a client case immediately. But most professionals eventually acquire multiple clients and this becomes an art (or science) in juggling your actual research periods at varied repositories with several different cases and clients on the go. You need to have your files and systems set up, with a complete file for each individual client in your office.

Tips from experience:

  • Decide beforehand when your working hours will be. You may also want to allot certain days for research at specific resource centers.
  • The use of a day timer to plan your day/month/year is essential. Short-term planning includes research days at repositories and report days in the office. Longer-term planning includes society meetings, future conferences, research field trips and other events you become involved in.
  • Don’t forget to plan/allow yourself some time off! Genealogists can easily become workaholics who let time go by without paying real attention to their nearest and dearest.

Folder System

7 Folder System for Client Work

Penelope Christensen has developed this system that works. A good supply of file folders starts you off!

1. Letters and Information from Client Put the client’s address and phone number on the index tab of this first folder, for ready reference. All correspondence and documents provided by the client are kept in here. It is good practice to pencil on the back of documents which client file they belong to and the date of receipt. This distinguishes them from any documents or copies you obtained, and in case you spill a file one day!

2. Back-Up Copies This folder contains photocopies of certificates, census pages, parish register entries, probates, etc. which you have obtained. They are there for ready reference when you continue work on this file at a later date. They are also insurance if a report is lost in the mail. If a series of reports develops, it makes sense to use large paper clips to separate groups of items. A group could correspond to the date of the appropriate report, but individual items are quicker to find if they are separated into types of records and alphabetized—in which case your copy of the report will indicate which were sent to the client at what time.

3. Research Notes All research planning, notes and transcripts should be saved for future reference. You may need to retrace your own steps from time to time and these serve as reminders of the ground you covered.

4. Accounts Photocopies of billing or invoices are kept here, along with record of payment.

5. Enclosures Ready for Reports As a report is being written the original documents or photocopies for accompanying it are placed in here in the correct order with labels/citations marked or attached. When they are all assembled for mailing to the client, make sure you have photocopies for placing in File 2. Thus File 5 gets emptied as reports are sent.

6. Reports Your copy of each dated, formal client report resides here, although some professionals may wish to keep that copy in a computer file. Some will do both! Related documents and photocopies go to File 2.

7. Unreported Work in Progress This is where the most activity is! As relevant items are brought into or arrive at your office, they go straight in here. When writing the report each item in turn is included in the report, after which the original notes go into File 3 and documentation into File 5. Also into this folder go the time logs you’ve kept for each client on that day’s outing. The time sheet will end up in Folder 4 after your invoice is prepared.

Your Briefcase

Your briefcase is your desk away from home. Leather or canvas, shoulder strap or wheels, are personal choices as you consider your present and projected needs. What you put into it for each research outing can be a big factor in the success of your research day or field trip. Hauling many pounds of file folders into a research center may ensure you have everything with you, but it may not be appropriate for the size and space or entrance restrictions of that center. It could also be hard on your back and exhaust you! Selective decisions regarding client work for each day are in order. On the other hand, you don’t want to arrive at your destination to discover that you forgot or misplaced a key piece of paper!

Overall, we suggest that you:

  • carefully prepare your briefcase for each research outing (not at the last minute!);
  • affix your name and address label or business card to all your belongings;
  • never take original documents with you; only use photocopies as working aids;
  • remember that pockets in your garments are a decided asset! (particularly for repositories that do not allow briefcases, handbags or fanny packs in the search room)


We won’t insult you with a list of pens, pencils and paper or notebook for notes and transcribing, which you will always have in good supply! Some resource centers will not allow pens or ink into areas where original documents are available. But a few additional items are suggested as useful staples for your consideration; not all will apply to each and every researcher:

  • your day timer;
  • a magnifier;
  • a yellow sheet of paper (for the tray of the microfilm reader (for those still using these) to help highlight difficult handwriting);
  • a paleography crib sheet (if you work with 19th century, or older, documents);
  • your current reader’s ticket, card or pass for the institution(s);
  • your laptop, netbook, tablet or handheld device, if you have one;
  • a supply of business cards or brochures;
  • a supply of coins for photocopy machines and reader-printers or appropriate copy card. Some institutions allow for use of a flash drive for saving photocopies;
  • a separate “To Do” list for each place you visit is a useful organizing tool, especially when you need to do searching for multiple clients in one outing;
  • the names and phone numbers for societies or colleagues who might provide extra information about local eateries, accommodation or resource centers, should the occasion arise;
  • A mini-stopwatch for timing interruptions in your work (professionals tend to get questions from friends or strangers in the middle of their work; this technique discourages further interruptions when the person realizes you are in the midst of client work).


Variables for your briefcase will be specific to the client cases you work on during any given outing. It is your decision how much of the client file accompanies you on your research day away from home. How much of that information do you really need in the field? Some suggestions of a minimum for each client:

  • Individual family group sheets and/or pedigree charts are essential, whether the client provided them or you drafted some yourself.
  • Each client needs a time log that goes with you on research periods. To be properly business-like, each piece of work must be entered on the relevant log. After compiling your research report, that log returns to the appropriate client folder or file until the next time you work on that case.
  • Your research plan and the client’s authorization letter will help keep you on track, plus any additional preliminary notes or searches you’ve already made.
  • Bring photocopies of any client-provided documents that go to the heart of the question or problem you will be working on.
  • Reference sheets, brochures or printouts for the places to visit that day, and the targeted resources, will be useful.

Working With Colleagues

Earlier we mentioned contacting some likely colleagues when the research enquiry was outside your own area of expertise or access. It will happen sometimes that in the midst of client work, your trail leads to another state, jurisdiction or country which is beyond the scope of your own confidence. At that time, and in the relevant report, you can offer the client some suggestions that will not stop that line of research dead in its tracks.

1. You can suggest the client make direct contact with a colleague (as long as you checked their availability and willingness) who does know the particular area or resource center. This makes sense when your work on that client’s family line or problem has wound down, and the path to further discoveries really lies outside your field. A personal recommendation is ideal, of course, but is not always possible. We don’t necessarily know a distant researcher by reputation or quality of work.

2. Finding a research colleague, or more than one, in the necessary area can be done by consulting directories and advertisements, or asking your peers for recommendations. Hopefully you can give the client several names to choose from. The APG Directory, the BCG Roster of professionals and the ICAPGen Find a Professional are online and can be quickly checked.

3. Checking with colleagues who do know the particular area or resource center, you can suggest to the client sub-contracting an individual to provide the work you can’t do. In other words, you rather than the client will deal with the other researcher. This makes sense when your colleague’s input will help to advance any work still to be done in your own area. Your responsibility would be to collect, evaluate, analyze and correlate new information coming from someone else. And you will have to remember to allow time for this extra work.

The decision is up to the client, of course. The decision regarding (2.) may depend on the status of the case at hand, and the client’s confidence in you and your reports.

Clearly, these situations show a need for contact with other professionals. Some researchers do enough networking with colleagues that they can work out an exchange system of hours—perhaps for clients or perhaps for their personal research wants. Each has the access or the expertise the other needs.

Complaints/Delinquent Accounts

We don’t want to suggest that this happens very often, because professionalism and competency normally win out. Complaints from a client are usually based on his/her unrealistic expectations—which you would have addressed right from the beginning in your correspondence, agreement or contract. Assuming the client has addressed a complaint directly to you, you must treat it seriously whether you believe it has factual basis or not. Such a problem is best resolved between the two of you as quickly as possible. Occasionally the professional researcher will come up empty for a client, making that client an unhappy person. It’s your job to assure the client that even negative findings have meaning.

If you, the researcher, make some kind of mistake in researching or reporting, you must correct this as soon as you discover it. For example, you may have cited the wrong microfilm number for a reference, or duplicated a previously-searched source, or neglected to insert a citation. It sometimes happens. The client may not even have noticed, but ethically you should acknowledge it, and avoid a potential complaint.

Delinquent accounts also may not be common, but the business risk exists. The unpaid invoice should be sent regularly as a reminder. Failing payment after several reminders, you may want a lawyer’s letter to reinforce your case.

If you are BCG certified or a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), you have recourse to third party arbitration or dispute resolution. If someone has made a complaint about you, it goes without saying that you want to defend yourself. Naturally, it takes considerable time and effort to describe your situation in the required detail. If you yourself have a grievance, you have to weigh all the factors involved against the possible outcome. What is ultimately at stake in the specific problem? Is it worth your time and effort to make this kind of appeal? Third party involvement does not guarantee that a complaint can be resolved or that suggested action will be taken. But it does offer judicious peer review.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.