Norway Probate Records
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Probate records are court records that describe the distribution of people's estates after death. These records are very helpful for genealogical research because in many areas the authorities began recording probate actions before the earliest birth and death records. It is also the record that can give us a more personal glimpse into the life of an ancestor because of the detailed description of personal property.
Probate records were not created for every person that died. About 25% of the population had probates. Information in the records usually include:
- the person's name
- the dates the probate was started, (death date can be included, more often was not)
- name of surviving spouse
- guardians for under aged children (verge)
- guardian for wife (laug verge)
- estate inventory
- and witnesses.
In these records whole families may be recorded, and in many probates long lists of heirs such as brothers, sisters, nephews, and nieces are shown, depending on the condition of a probate.
Even though a probate record was not created for every person who died, the probate law of 1687 states that a probate was necessary if a parent died and left children that were under age. A child would have to be age 25 to be of age. An estate was often probated even if the children were of age.
While probate records are some of the most accurate sources of genealogical information, the relationships noted in the records may not always have the same meaning today. For instance, a brother-in-law may be recorded as a brother because legally that made no difference in probating the estate.
From the 14th century, the foged (bailiff) was responsible for law enforcement in his jurisdiction. Late in the 16th century, the sorenskriver (scribe) in the bailiff's office was appointed to take care of probate cases and prepare the legal documents in connection with probates. Later the title sorenskriver came to mean probate judge.
The probate record is a rich source of information about individuals and their place in society, especially after the 1650's, when this source is fairly abundant, and few other sources are available.
Even before the unification of Norway (872 AD) some districts had joined together in a laug or lag (law) that later became known as a ting (court), where one could come in order to settle disagreements, bring forth complaints, or hear the law.
A list of many terms found in probate and other records can be found in the Norwegian Word List with an explanation of the words.
Exploring Probate Records in Norway - Research tutorial at FamilySearch
The Probate Process
Probate records are among the most important genealogical sources of Norway, and the procedure for their jurisdiction had its beginning centuries ago. The country was divided into small districts. Several of these districts composed a lagdømme, a court where the law was expounded and disputes settled.
From these beginnings evolved fogderier (legal circuits), which today are known as domsogn or sorenskriveri (probate courts).
The administrative official in a len (county) in the earlier centuries was the lensherre. Later an amtmann (county governor) was appointed by the king. His local functionary was the fogd or foged (bailiff), and the fogderi was his official district. The foged became the official who collected taxes and enforced the law (politi og oppebørselsmann).
In the later part of the 16th century the scribe (sorenskriver) in the office of the fogd was appointed to take care of the legal division of an inheritance, or the settlement of an estate, and he prepared the probate documents as a probate clerk. Norwegian law required that the death of a person be reported to the district official as soon as possible in order to seal the estate of the deceased.
Exempted from this rule was money or property set apart for the funeral and the common household. The cost of these were recorded and accounted for at the closing of the probate. If the deceased was a parent, any children still living at home and the surviving spouse were to be present at home at the registration of the probate document, which registration was to take place on the third day after the death at the home of the deceased.
All the guardians had to be present at the time of the settlement. All heirs who were not living in the parish but were residents of the same county were expected to present themselves within a set time of the registration. Usually it was up to the district official (lensmann) to decide how soon each individual was expected to be present, depending on where they lived.
Those heirs living out of the county were customarily to be present within 12 weeks after the date of death. If they lived outside the country, they were usually to present themselves one year and six weeks after the date of death.
If a widow was pregnant at the time of her husband's death, she had the right to retain the undivided possession of the estate until the birth of the child so that the unborn child would also inherit from the estate.
A widow or widower could not marry again before a certificate was obtained that showed that the estate had been settled. From the commencement of such records, around 1660 to 1685, each probate court recorded deeds, probates, and other legal business in one chronological record. In 1685 the probate laws were revised and more firmly established under the authority of a bailiff in the rural areas and the mayor, aldermen, and city judge in the cities. By 1690, however, a district judge was the administrator in probate matters in the county courts.
At the same time, the administration of probates in the cities came under the jurisdiction of the city judge alone.
Probate records of clergy and school teachers were kept separately from the civil records and were administered by some of the local church officials. This separate condition existed in general up to 1809 and in some districts up to 1812.
According to the Law of 1685, which was in force until 1814, the sequence of distribution of an inheritance was as follows: The next of kin went to the court with a sponsor or guardian no sooner than 30 days after the death of the relative. In the earlier days, it was customary to give 50 percent of the property to the surviving spouse and the other 50 percent to the children, with male children receiving twice as much as female children. This rule was later changed so that all children received equal amounts.
If no spouse or children were living, the estate reverted to the deceased's father or his brother and sisters. If these relatives were unavailable, the estate reverted to the deceased person's mother or her brothers and sisters, then to the grandparents, and then to other remaining relatives.
The Norwegian law provided for the guardianship of children under 25. At the mother's death the father was appointed. At the father's death one of the brothers of the children was appointed if he was over the age of 25 (a person was considered a minor until that age). Next in line was the grandfather on the father's side, then the grandfather on the mother's side. After the grandfather, the next in line were the uncles on the father's side and then the uncles on the mother's side. If none of these persons were alive, then the nearest relatives on the father's side were appointed. If this was impossible, then the nearest relatives on the mother's side were appointed. If no relatives could be found, the government appointed some reliable persons as guardians for the children.
Probate Records in Norway
Probate records are court records that describe the distribution of a person’s estate. These records are very helpful for genealogical research because in many areas the authorities began recording probate actions before the earliest birth and death records. It is also the record that can give us a more personal glimpse into the life of an ancestor, because of the detailed description of personal property. Probate records were not created for every person that died.
In Norway probate records are one of the most accurate sources for genealogical evidence. Because it is a legal document and the information is usually correct.
Relationships noted in the probate record may not always have the same meaning as it would today. For instance a brother-in-law may be recorded as a brother, because legally it made no difference.
The probate record is a rich source of information about individuals and their place in society, especially after the 1650’s, when this source is fairly abundant, and few other sources are available.
Even before the unification of Norway (872 AD) some districts had joined together in a laug or lau (law), that later became known as a ting (court), where one could come in order to settle disagreements, bring forth complaints or to hear the law.
History of the Norwegian Probate Records
Early on twelve well respected men from the community, the sogn (parish) or herred civil district (usually the same area as the parish), were appointed as members of the court. They were, along with the bailiff, responsible for all court cases, including probates. Late in the 16th century the sorenskriver or byskriver (scribe- sorenskriver in the country communities – byskriver in the cities) were assigned to prepare the documents in connection with a probate, since most of the men in the community (many of them farmers) were not able to write, at least not extensively. Often an ordinary probate would be twenty pages or more. Later the sorenskriver (scribe) took on more responsibility in the probate proceedings, and had a vote in the outcome, until the title of Sorenskriver took on the meaning of Judge, and he made the final decisions.
Most probate records start around 1687, when a law was written in order to have a more systematic, legal procedure and to better protect the rights of minor heirs. Some probate records start as a separate record earlier, but most of the probates of earlier dates were part of the general court records. Many probates were conducted privately, the heirs themselves dividing the property and paying the debts. The only probate that took place in court was when the heirs could not agree on the division, and it became a matter for the court to resolve the differences.
The Probate Law
The law of 1687 known as Christian the V’s Norwegian Law, stated that the surviving spouse should inherit 50% of the estate, and the children should divide the other 50% between them, the male child’s lot being twice that of the female child. Much later in the late 1800’s the law was changed so that a daughter would inherit the same amount as a son.
The probate records prior to 1687 are usually fairly brief when compared to the ones after that year.
If a woman was pregnant at the time of the death of her husband, she had the right to keep possession of all belongings until after the birth of the child so that the newborn would be part of the division of the property. This is in Norwegian called uskiftet bo.
The law provided very definitely who was to be the guardian for children if they were minors (under age 25). In the case that there were no relatives living in the area to look after the interest of the children, the court would appoint a guardian for them.
The surviving widow had to have a laugverge (literally law-guardian, however he was more of a spokesman, since a woman could own property, and she made her own decisions regarding her property), to represent her during the proceedings. This was often a relative much after the same patterns as the guardian for children, her father, brother, uncle or cousin and so forth. However, a widow could choose her own spokesman.
The oldest son in a family have what is called odelsrett (allodial birthright) to the property. If he for some reason should lose the property, he or his children can take it back if he can prove that he has odelsrett. He does not inherit the property free and clear. As far as value goes, he does not inherit more than his siblings. He has to either pay them off or give them part ownership in the property.
If there were no children in a marriage, the property of the deceased reverted back to his or her family, the parents if they were living, or siblings, or their children.
A decree of 1697 required that the surviving spouse should report the death when there were heirs to the deceased’s estate. From this time on the probates become more detailed.
In 1775 a Royal decree required that every death be reported to the probate officials by the sheriff in the county.
In 1830, and still valid today there was a change in the probate law, specifically on how the probate should be recorded. These last changes do not affect genealogical research.
The fee for the probate services was a small percentage of the value of the estate. The probate judge was paid well for his services. So was his scribe, the sheriff and the two appraisers that the court appointed to estimate the value of each item of the estate. These appraisers could not, according to the law, be related to the people affected by the probate. A fee also was paid for the stemplet papir (paper stamped with official mark) the probate was recorded on for the family to keep as their deed and proof of inherited property. There was also a small percentage allocated for support of the justice system (jail), and at various times for other official business. Sometimes these fees took enough out of the probate to make it a hardship for a family. And since the fees were paid “in kind” the nicest personal property often went to the officials.
Most of the Norwegian probates are indexed. There are different kinds of indexes. The word for index in Norwegian is Register. For some records the index was made at the time the record was made. These are often found in the back of the large probate book in which case it will say in the front of the book or in the back of the book, and then indexed by the first letter of a given name. Other typewritten indexes have been added later, also in strict alphabetical order by the first letter only.
The card indexes made by the Norwegian archives are by far the best indexes. It is more like an extract arranged by the name of the farm a person lived on in a given parish. It usually include the name of the deceased and spouse, date of probate, page number in the actual record, names and sometimes ages of children, and the value of the estate. There is not a probate card index for all the farms, but check the FamilySearch Catalog and the Digital Archives for probate card indexes as they are well worth searching.
There are still probates that do not have any kind of an index. These probates are usually entered in the probate books fairly close to, but not strictly, chronologically by date. First find the person you are looking for in the death and burial records, then start searching for him/her from that date in the probate records. This record was entered in to the probate books later than the date the probate took place, from the documents generated at the time of probate action, and sometimes a probate was finished much later than the date it was initially started. It can sometimes take considerable effort to find a probate when no index is available. The effort is usually well worth it especially in earlier time periods.
For the most part, people today are interested in the country communities; relatively few lived in the cities before the industrial revolution. However, if a person lived in a city, there are usually indexes by last name.
The probate records were generated on the level of the Lagrett or Sorenskriveri (District court). There are county maps, outlining the probate district in the probate section of the FamilySearch Wiki for Norway. The boundaries of these judicial districts have changed relatively little, because the boundaries were usually determined by natural geological features in the landscape. However, some areas have changed from one district to another, and as time passed and the population increased, some districts split in two. For example, the early judicial district called Gudbrandsdalen, later split into North Gudbrandsdalen and South Gudbrandsdalen.
An ecclesiastical probate jurisdiction, on the level of Prosi (deanery) was set up for the clergy, sextons and schoolteachers in 1661. From 1736 the School teacher and the parish clerk in a rural parish was usually the same person. This changed over time – different time, in different parishes. This separate probate record was terminated around 1809, some districts continuing the practice a little later. These probate records are available on microfilm at the Family History Library as well as online at Digital Archives.
The parish priest usually did not own the farm where he lived while serving as the priest. When he died the next priest would move to the priest farm. This could cause a problem for his widow if he did not have other properties where she could go. In some cases the new priest would marry the widow of the previous priest and in some cases a farm would be designated for widows of priest that had passed away.
From 1690 until 1824, the regiment or garrison commander had the right to preside over the probates of his commissioned officers. Some are available on microfilm at the Family History Library.
Besides the pure genealogical value of the probate records, it also adds another dimension, the fact that we can get a glimpse into the way our ancestors lived. In most probates there are detailed listings of the inventory of the personal property of the deceased.
Remember that if you have a transcript of the family information in a probate (such as the card indexes), this is usually taken from the very first part of the probate, where the heirs are listed. If someone is missing in that part, that you have reason to believe should be listed as part of the heirs, it will not be missed in the part where the property is divided. Search then the original probate and you should find them there. No one who has the right to inherit is left off. Still today you cannot disinherit your children in Norway.
As with other genealogical source, the probate records should be used in conjunction with all other sources available for the particular area and family you are researching. It is however a legal document, and seldom contains any serious errors, and should weigh heavy if you have conflicting information.
The Availability of Probate Records
Early probate records for clergy, school teachers, and military officers were often separated from the regular probate records. Church officials conducted probate proceedings for priests or schoolteachers, commanding officers for military officers. After 1812 a probate judge conducted these probates along with all other probates.
The Family History Library has an excellent collection of Norwegian probate records. These are listed in the catalog under:
NORWAY, [REGION] - PROBATE RECORDS
NORWAY, [COUNTY] - PROBATE RECORDS
NORWAY, [COUNTY], [PARISH] - PROBATE RECORDS
Records before 1687 are usually listed under:
NORWAY - COURT RECORDS
NORWAY, [REGION] - COURT RECORDS
NORWAY, [COUNTY] - COURT RECORDS
NORWAY, [COUNTY], [PARISH] - COURT RECORDS
Many of the Norwegian probate records are not indexed. Those that are indexed may be indexed by given name, surname, or the name of the farm where the deceased person resided at the time of death.
History of the Norwegian Probate Records
Early on 12 well respected men from the community, the sogn (parish) or herred (civil district - usually the same area as the parish), were appointed as members of the court, and they were, along with the bailiff, responsible for all cases, including probates. Late in the 16th century the sorenskriver or byskriver (scribe - sorenskriver in the rural communities - byskriver in the cities) were assigned to prepare the documents in connection with the probates, since most of the men in the community (many of them farmers) were not able to write, at least not extensively. Often an ordinary probate would be 20 pages or more. Later the sorenskriver took on more responsibility in the probate proceedings. He had a vote in the outcome until the title of Sorenskriver took on the meaning of Judge, and he made the final decisions.
Most probate records start around 1687, when a law was written in order to have a more systematic, legal procedure and to better protect the rights of minor heirs. Some probate records start as a separate record earlier, but most of the probates of earlier dates were part of the general court records. Many probates were conductred privately, the heirs themselves dividing the property and paying the debts. The only probates that took place in court were when the heirs could not agree on the division, and it became a matter for the court to resolve the differences.
Probate Card Indexes in Norway
The Probate card indexes (produced by the Norwegian Archives) are by far the best indexes. They are indexed by the name of the farm where a person lived and are of great value because they will list:
- Name of the decease and spouse
- The date of the probate
- Page number in the actual probate
- Names and sometimes ages of children
- The value of the estate
If you are searching for your ancestors in the probate records make sure you check the card index (kort register) as they list the vital information about your ancestors without having to spend hours searching through the actual probates. These indexes are available on microfilm at the Family History Library and many are online at Digitalarkivet under the respective probate district. A card index has not been produced for every probate district in Norway.
Probate Records available online at Digital Archives
Scanned probate records are available online in a searchable database at Digital Archives (Digitalarkivet) of Norway.
A. Under the first pull down meny the probate records may be searched by three topics: 1. Verdslig (by eller sorenskriveri) [most probates are listed here]. 2. Geistlige (stift eller prosti) [include usually only probates of the ministers and/or schoolteachers]. 3. Militær (only for people who served in the military).
B. Then you may choose the county your ancestor lived at the time of his or her death.
C. Is optional.
D. Here you may choose all probate types (such as card indexes, indexes, probate records, death notices etc.)
E. Aproximate time period of probate.
F. Serach by name of office or area.
This is a wonderful resource and you can use the Digital Archives to search for your ancestors from home.