Beginning Research in United States Probate Records
What are United States probate records?
Probate is the legal process distributing real estate (property) and personal estate (possessions) to a person's heirs. Testate is the term used when a will existed. Intestate means there was no will, and the court distributes the estate. Other documents may be found in the full probate packet. Probate records are available for only about 10% of families.
What time periods and locations do they cover?
Probate records often pre-date other birth and death records. Wills are found in the town or county where the person lived when the will was made or where they died.
What can I find in them?
The single most important value of probate records is the proof of relationships. People are identified as a wife, son, daughter, nephew, niece, brother, sister, etc. If there is no will, the distribution is made by the court to the heirs who are usually family members.
How do I access them?
- Probate was administered at the county level. Your best access might be by calling the county. Always ask the county for the complete probate packet. Some Colonial records were found in town record books.
- Most original probate books and probate packets are kept at the county courthouse where the estate was settled. Sometimes the probate records have been removed to a central repository, such as the state archives.
- It may be possible to pay for copies of probate information to be sent to you from the county courthouse, but it may be necessary to hire a local on-site researcher for a fee. Or perhaps a local genealogy society may be willing to copy the records for a small donation.
- Google for county court addresses and phone numbers.
- Online Probate Records: To find online probate records,go to the state wiki page at FamilySearch.org. When you are at the state wiki page, click on the button that says “[State] Online Records,” and scroll down to where the probate records are listed.
- Or go directly to:
Probate Records on Microfilm and in Books
- Many county probate records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library, but may not have been digitized yet. Search the catalog for the county where your ancestor died to find probate records on microfilm or in books. Beginning in November, 2015, microfilms are being digitized and listed in the FHL Catalog with a camera icon if they can be searched online.
- To find online digitized probate records in the Family History Library catalog, fill in the search fields as pictured. Choose "Subject" search and disable "Place" search (close field by clicking on X). Type in the locality name and "Probate". Set "Search These Family Centers" to "Online".
- Look for this icon following a microfilm number listing. Clicking on the camera will take you to digitized microfilm of that record.
- If there are no probate records for your direct ancestors, look at the probate records for your ancestor’s relatives, including siblings, children, parents, and especially unmarried aunts and uncles, as your ancestors may have been mentioned in their relative’s probate records.
- When you find probate records about your ancestor, be sure to transcribe them completely so that you won’t have to keep reading the old handwriting over and over, and so you don’t miss any important clues or information about your family in the record.