Analyzing United States Probate Records
Probate records are court records created after an individual’s death that relate to a court’s decisions regarding the distribution of the estate to the heirs or creditors and the care of any dependents. Careful analysis of probate documents is important to family history researchers because these documents can provide information to help reconstruct family units. While probate records are one of the most accurate sources of genealogical evidence, they have their limitations.
Look in indexes (see "Indexes" subheading below) and court dockets for the surname of interest.
Search the court minutes. These are the notes of the probate court proceedings. Use the minutes to develop a timeline of actions for the estate of interest. The court minutes will provide clues to finding unindexed records.
Consult bound volumes as well as probate packets. The documents found in the case file might not be filed in any logical order, but maintain the order of the documents as you found them.
Study documents for names, relationships (stated and implied), localities, and possible irregularities.
Transcribe or abstract the documents, being careful to maintain the original arrangement, spelling, and punctuation.
Check the statutes (laws) that were in effect during the time period of interest. These can be found in law libraries or by searching the internet for books available in the public domain, such as those found on Google Books or the Internet Archive.
What records might be missing? Not all probate-related records are kept in the same file, cabinet or court. Read the Probate Process article to determine if a document might be missing.
Because the will usually describes the estate and often gives the names and relationships of heirs or beneficiaries, it can be one of the most valuable of probate documents.
The testator died between the devising of the will and the date that the will was presented in court. This can be useful for estimating a death date when no formal death record exists.
A will might provide evidence of other records to consider. For instance, mention of religion might lead to church records and mention of land ownership might lead to land records.
When analyzing a will record, be aware of the following potential problems:
- Not everyone left a will.
- The wife mentioned in the will may not be the mother of the children mentioned in the will.
- The will may omit a deceased child.
- The will may omit a child who already received his or her inheritance.
- Maiden names of female spouses are not usually mentioned.
- Children are not always listed in birth order; sons may be listed before the daughters.
- Those named are not necessarily related to the testator.
- There are no every-name indexes for those listed in the will.
- There may be a problem with lack of punctuation. For example, is Mary Beth one name or two?
- It can be difficult to determine the difference between married and middle names.
- Relationships may be misleading. For instance, uncle or aunt may be spouses, cousin may mean nephew or niece, son-in-law could mean stepson, nephew could mean grandson, and brother and sister may mean brother and sister in the Gospel.
When the distribution was completed and payments to the creditors and heirs made, the executor or administrator presented to the court a record or decree of distribution and settlement. This document listed the beneficiaries of the estate and the property each received.
Distribution records are often the most helpful source of family information in an intestate case. Distribution accounts might include clues to an heir's change of name or address. The testator's personal account book might have been presented to the court as proof of distributions made prior to the will or probate.
An appraiser prepared an inventory that listed the property in the estate and obtained an appraisal of its value. Inventory documents may include real estate, personal property, guardians, conservators, partnerships, minors' estates, appraisals, appraisers warrants, and reports. In intestate cases the inventory is very important as it may describe the land, tools, slaves, and other personal property at the time of death.
These records are sometimes transcribed in the will books or in separate volumes, but the originals may be in the probate packet.
Bond records include those of administrator, executor, guardian, appraiser, and trustee. Careful analysis of bonds can help to determine relationships. In most probate cases, the court required the administrator (and sometimes the executor) to post a bond to ensure that he would properly complete his duties. The bond required the administrator to pay a fee to the court if he failed to adequately administer the estate. One or more persons were required to co-sign the bond as "sureties." These individuals were often members of the family or closely associated with the family. Therefore, the surname of the bondsman might provide a clue to a maiden name if the wife was named as executrix.
When available, only the name of the deceased appears in probate-related indexes. Not all indexes follow the same pattern. Some courthouse indexes are complex enough to require guides to use them. (See the United States Index Systems article.)
In Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, two indexes are used to get to the desired records. First, use the alphabetical Estate Index to determine the book, page, and block number of reference in the Proceedings Index. Then refer to the Proceedings Index for the references found in the pertinent block. The Proceedings Index inventories the major records in an estate file.
In North Carolina, land that was transferred by will did not get recorded in the deed indexes; use the Devisor and Devisee indexes to locate the record. In a few other states, this index might be found as an Heirs by Descent index.
Probate court records might also include unrecorded wills, widows' allowances, orders to find heirs, objections by heirs, sales documents, marriage settlements, written depositions, arguments of attorneys, waivers, changes of name, legitimization, memoranda, appeals, estate taxes, and more.
Consult the Glossary of Probate Terms wiki article for definitions of terms found above.
- Greenwood, Val D. Third edition. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. 2000. Of particular interest are the chapters, "Understanding Probate Records and Basic Legal Terminology," "What About Wills?" and "The Intestate—Miscellaneous Probate Records—Guardianships." FHL Collection
- Rose, Christine. Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures. San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2004. Of particular interest is the chapter, "Strategies that Work. FHL Collection
- Ryskamp, George R. "Follow the Flow: U.S. Probate Research." Conference on Family History and Genealogy, 2010 (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2010).
- Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, editors. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Third edition. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc., 2006. Of particular interest is the section, "Probate," pages 268 - 277. FHL Collection