United States Probate Limitations
While probate records are one of the most accurate sources of genealogical evidence, they must be used with some caution.
Limitations of probate records
The following limitations should be considered when using probate records:
- Not everyone left an estate that was probated by a court.
- Not all relatives are listed--usually only the wife and children.
- Date of death is usually not given.
- Indexes usually list testator, not heirs or beneficiaries.
- Information on the residence of relatives is rare.
- Probate-related records can be filed in more than one cabinet, ledger, or packet and in more than one office.
- Transcribed records might be incomplete, misread, or incorrectly transcribed so consult the original when possible.
- Some courthouse indexes are complex enough to require guides to use them. (See the United States Index Systems article.)
Limitations of a will
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:
- Uncle/aunt may be spouses
- Cousin may mean nephew/niece
- Son-in-law could mean stepson or nephew could mean grandson
- Brother and sister may mean brother and sister in the Gospel
The following strategies can be used to overcome these limitations:
- Don't make assumptions.
- Look at other records. Analyze the evidence from a variety of records and correlate the results.
- Search for related transactions that might be found in court records, land records, guardianship records, and vital records.
- Search other jurisdictions for the related records mentioned above. For instance, land might have been owned in more than one locality, a marriage may have taken place in another county or state, or records might have been transferred to a regional or state repository.
- 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."
- Rose, Christine. Courthouse Indexes Illustrated. San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2006.
- Rose, Christine. Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures. San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2004. Of particular interest are the chapters, "Estates Galore," "Estate Documents," "Milking Every Clue from Estates," and "Strategies that Work."
- 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.