A probate record is a court record created after someone has died and their real estate and personal items need to be distributed. These are usually pretty easy to obtain and they tend to go back pretty far into American history. These records have wonderful information in them about an ancestor and can help with figuring kinships, approximate death dates, and finding land records.
Location of Record
First, where you’d normally find probate records would be in a probate court in the county where the ancestor died. This court can have many names. For example, the one in my county is called the Circuit Court. Other names can be Register of Wills, Superior Court, District Court, etc.
Some of these records can be held in multiple areas as well. For example, in my county the older records are held by the County Archives and the more recent ones are still in the Circuit Court. Others may be held in the state archives or in the state library. Normally you can call your county probate office and ask them where the records are held for the time frame you are looking for.
Types of Probates
There are two different types of probate records: intestate and testate.
- Testate is what most would hope for; it means the person died with a will. The will itself can have a lot of genealogical information contained in them, like naming of children, which is especially nice when they name married daughters.
- Intestate means that someone died without leaving a will and it’s up to the court to settle everything and distribute items to heirs. The way this is done has to do with the law at the time in that area so it’s a good idea to know the probate laws for that county during your time frame.
Information in Records
This varies greatly but is my favorite part of working with probate records! Here’s a rundown of what you could find in nor particular order:
- The Will – This is only in testate records of course. It can include the name of his wife and his children. Sometimes it’ll simply be “my loving wife” instead of her name, it really varies.
- Letters of administration – This names the administrator of the will, who will settle the estate, and is probably a member of the immediate family of the deceased.
- Administration bonds – The administrator had to pay a fee to settle the will although this could be waived by the will. This document can help identify approximate date of death
- Sale bills – These can be items like the sale of personal property as well as funeral expenses.
- Receipts – This is a simple acknowledgement that someone received what they were supposed to from an estate.
- Inventory – Probably my favorite part of probate records is the listing of everything the deceased owned. It can include things like livestock, dishes, farm equipment, furniture, clothing, and more.
- Final Settlements – This is rather self-explanatory but it covers the debt that was paid, what was given to whom, and other fees were paid. This is usually the latest document in a record.
- Proofs of heirship – This can happen when a will is contested and can lead to a lot more information that you can find in court house records.
- Assignments of dowers – This would give the widow’s name and specifies what portion of her husband’s estate she has use of for her own life. Normally it would be one-third of her husband’s property.
- Decrees of distribution – This outlines the division and distribution of an estate and can list descendants with their relationship to the deceased.
- Guardianship appointments – This names a guardian if the deceased had minor children. It could be the surviving parent or some other close relative. These records can help determine age for a child too. In early American history, if a guardian was appointed that normally means the child was under 14. If the child chose his own guardian, that means he was over 14. This rule can vary and it’s always best to check the laws for that time. More about this is below.
For early American history, women’s part in this is interesting. A married woman usually did not own property. Anything they had prior to being married – any inheritance or wages earned – became their husbands unless there was a will that specifically stated otherwise. So, few married women had wills. Widowed women who never remarried did make wills though. Of course, once again, each place is different but it’s good to know how women were viewed in the law to help you to understand how probate rulings could affect them.
The Legal Genealogist wrote a post about a Reversion of Dower that touches on women’s rights when it came to property. I highly recommend reading her blog by the way. She’s very informative and has a great writing style.
Since widows weren’t normally considered capable of taking charge of their children’s property, a child was normally appointed a man (usually a relative) to be the guardian for the children. This person could be appointed by the will or by the court if the will didn’t do so. These records are normally restricted now. Sometimes there can be a time frame for this restriction but often all of them are restricted.
Other Places to Find Probates
Probate records are normally in the county the person lived in at the time of his death. However, there are other places where you can find this information:
- There can be published wills and abstracts, which can help you find the original.
- Sometimes there are indexes to help you find these records. There are lists on the USGenWeb Project website and some on FamilySearch.org.
- FamilySearch.org has many indexes, abstracts, and whole collections of probates for specific counties available on microfilm. Go to the catalog section of the FamilySearch,org website (under the search tab). From there put in the county you need in the search box. Once found, hit enter and it’ll take you to a list of records for that county. You can scroll down to Probate Records and see what it has. Some of these are available to look through page by page or you may have to order the films. Obviously seeing the original is best, but this is wonderful if you aren’t able to go yourself.
There are many other records you can also find in courthouses and I’ll touch on what those are next week. Happy hunting everyone!