Norway Probate Records
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Introduction[edit | edit source]
Probate is the legal process of administering a person's estate after their death. The records created describe the distribution of a person's estate among heirs and creditors. These records are very helpful for genealogical research because in many areas the probate records predate the church records of birth and death. They also give us a more personal glimpse into the life of an ancestor because of the detailed description of personal property.
The following information may be found in these records:
- Person's name
- Date the probate was started
- Name of surviving spouse
- Heirs and their relationship to the deceased
- Guardians for the interests of minor children (verge)
- Guardian for interests of the wife (laug verge)
- Estate inventory
- Final settlement of debts and credits
The arrangement of a probate usually follows this pattern. Date and place of probate, the names of the deceased and heirs are mentioned first; then movable and immovable property, with their valuation; folowed by debts. Probate costs, remaining taxes and other things are deducted from this amount, and then the distribution of the estate takes place. The amount available to the heirs, and how it is to be distributed to each of them, culminating with the disbursement of what each will receive.
The FamilySearch Learning Center has the following classes available:
- Exploring Probate Records in Norway
- Norwegian Probates
- Norway Probate Records (2016 Family History Library Nordic Conference)
For additional information on the terms you will find in probate records see Weight and Measurement in Old Norway, Norway Currency, and the Norwegian Genealogical Word List. The Digital Archives has an overview of the probate laws, process, and information contained in the records at Skifte og arv - en innføring (in Norwegian).
Historical Background[edit | edit source]
Prior to the unification of Norway under Harald Fairhair in 872 AD, some districts had joined together under shared laws (laug, lag) which later became courts (ting), where one could come in order to settle disagreements, bring forth complaints, or hear the law. From the 14th century, the foged (bailiff) was responsible for law enforcement in his jurisdiction. Early probates were conducted by jurors, who were appointed by the lagmann (presiding judge) to act as lay judges in these matters. In 1591 the sorenskriver (scribe) was appointed to record matters brought before the court. In 1634 the sorenskriver was appointed to preside over probate cases and became judge of the lowest court (court of first instance). In cities the byfoged was responsible for probate administration.
These early probates were part of the general court records. Many probates were conducted privately, with the heirs 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. While most probate records start around 1690, when Christian V’s Norwegian Law of 1687 mandated a more systematic procedure to record the process and better protect the rights of minor heirs, the earliest preseved probates date from 1656.
In these records whole families may be recorded, and in many probates long lists of heirs such as brothers, sisters, nephews, and nieces are given. 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. Only about 25% of the population had probates. If a deceased person's estate did not contain enough assets to cover the expenses of a probate none was held.
Laws Regarding Probate[edit | edit source]
Christian V’s Norwegian Law of 1687 required probates to be held whenever the deceased left minor children, absent heirs or heirs living in foreign countries, or where no heirs could be located. The law also stated the surviving spouse should inherit 50% of the estate, and the children should divide the other 50% between them, the male children's lot (broderlod) being twice that of the females (søsterlod). 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 called uskiftet bo (undivided residence).
Within 30 days of a person's death it was required for the next of kin to notify the authorities of the death. Beginning in the 1850s the deaths were reported to the lensmann (county administrator) who would record the death in a dødsfallsprotokoll (register of deaths). The probate was to be completed within three months of the death, but sometimes it took longer in the case of complicated estates.
The law specified a guardian would be appointed to represent the interests of each child if they were minors (under age 25). This guardian was usually appointed from among the male relatives of the deceased parent. Frequently this would be an uncle, followed by grandfather on the deceased parent's side, then the grandfather on the surviving parent's side. 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. The surviving widow selected a laugverge (legal guardian), to represent her during the proceedings. This was more of a spokesman for the woman's interests, as married women could own property and make their own decisions. This was often a relative as a widow could choose her spokesman and was not appointed by the court.
If the property was owned by the family and had met the requirements to be considered an allodial property, the oldest son had odelsrett (primogeniture) to the property. If for some reason the family should lose the property, he or his children can take it back if he can prove that he has odelsrett. The oldest son did not inherit the property free and clear. His inheritance was not more than any of his siblings. To own the property he would have to purchase their interest 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. Even though a probate record was not created for every person who died, the 1687 law required a probate if a parent died and left minor children. However, probates were not held for every person that died. Only about 25% of the population had probates. If a deceased person's estate did not contain enough assets to cover the expenses none was held.
Other significant changes have been made to laws regarding probate. 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 there was a change in how the probate should be recorded. These last changes do not affect genealogical research. The Inheritance Act of 31 July 1854 (Arveloven 1854) specified sisters should inherit equally with their brothers. In 1869 it was required to hold probates for any deceased person with a net worth over 100 speciedaler.
Inheritance[edit | edit source]
Christian V's law provided for persons with no children to will half of their property to anyone they wished. Persons with children may will up to half their property to the church, schools, or to be used to support the poor. These instances were rare, and in most cases estates were divided among the immediate family: surviving spouse and children. If the children were dead, the inheritance would pass to the grandchildren. If there were no grandchildren the inheritance would would be distributed following this pattern:
- Father of the deceased
- If there are no living father, it is divided between the mother and full and half siblings and if the siblings are dead, their children
- If no living mother, children of siblings and grandchildren of dead siblings
- Grandparents as if they were siblings
- Great grandparents
- Children of grandparents as they were siblings and their children if anyone is dead
- 1st cousins and their children
- Great grandparents’ children as siblings and their children
- 2nd cousins as if they were siblings and their children
- Great grandparents’ siblings as they were siblings and their children
- 3rd cousins as they were siblings and their children
This was simplified in the 1840s and 50s as follows:
- Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren
- Parents and siblings
- Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, and cousins
- Great-grandparents, Grand Aunts, Grand Uncles, and second cousins
- Great-great grandparents
The Probate Process[edit | edit source]
After the notification of death was made to the authorities, a date would be set to begin the process of registering the property. If possible, this registration was to be made within three days of death. If the deceased had minor children, the children and surviving spouse were to be present during the appraisal process. The appraisal was made by three men who were tasked with listing every item of moveable and fixed property and assigning a monetary value. These appraisers could not, according to the law, be related to the people affected by the probate. The death would be made public to inform any creditors so they could present their claims. Notification could be made buy the lensmann outside the church following the Sunday service, posting a notice at the local store or in the newspaper. Claims were submitted to the authorities where they were accepted or denied.
Payment of debts were prioritized, with any outstanding taxes being first, followed by wages owed to any employees. Money or property set apart to pay funeral expenses were identified, recorded and accounted for at the closing of the probate. Court fees were also given priority and usually were limited to a small percentage of the value of the estate. The sorenskriver, the clerk, the sheriff, and the appraisers were all paid out of this amount. A fee also was paid for the stemplet papir (paper printed with king's monogram) the probate was recorded. This document served as proof the probate was completed and established ownership of any goods. A small percentage was also assessed for support of the local judicial system, and other official business. Sometimes these fees took enough out of the probate to make it a hardship for a family. It was sometimes necessary for property to be auctioned off to pay debts, and these may be recorded in separate auksjonsprotokoll.
All heirs not living in the parish but residents of the same county were expected to present themselves to the probate authorities within a set time of the registration. Usually it was up to the 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. On the date appointed for the settlement of the probate all guardians and heirs were to be present at the time of the settlement, if possible. The sorenskriver would review the deceased's assets, debts, and how they were discharged, then list the items each heir was to receive.
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.
Jurisdictions[edit | edit source]
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.
Special Jurisdictions[edit | edit source]
An ecclesiastical probate jurisdiction, on the level of prosti (deanery) was set up for the clergy, deacons (klokkar) and schoolteachers in 1661. This separate probate record was terminated around 1809, some districts continuing the practice a little later. In the military from 1690 until 1824, the regimental or garrison commander presided over the probate process for officers under his command.
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 onto the farm. This could cause a problem for the widow if the priest 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 priest's widows.
The Records[edit | edit source]
The probate records were kept by the sorenskriveri (rural magistrate), byfogd (city magistrate), or prosti (deanery) for probates associated with the clergy. Probates for millitary officers were kept by the generalauditørens (Inspector General). You can identify the correct jurisdiction by referring to the appropriate parish page in the FamilySearch Research Wiki, or by checking the FamilySearch Catalog for the locality and checking the subject heading Probate records.
Registers[edit | edit source]
Most registers cover a range of years and contain a separate given-name index usually located in the back of the book. Entries are made chronologically based on the date of the probate decision and include the date and place of the probate hearing, the name of the deceased, his heirs; creditors and debts; assessed value of property; and the final distribution of the estate. In the 1840s and 1850s changes were made to how the records were arranged. Beginning in 1843 skifteutlodningsprotokoller which recorded the distribution of the estate were kept separately. After 1850 three sets of probate records were kept: skifteregistreringsprotokoller (registration), skiftebehandlings- or skifteforhandlingsprotokoller (negotiations and deliberations), and skifteslutnings- or skifteutlodningsprotokoller (distributions or settlements).
The probate record shown here is for Peder Olsen of Masvær farm, Herøy, Nordland, dated 16 June 1767. It identifies his wife, Elen Maria Iversdatter; their children, Elias Pedersen, age 24; Kierstina Pedersdatter, deceased and survived by a minor daughter Else Jacobsdatter; Berethe Pedersdatter, age 40; and Boel Pedersdatter, age 30, and married.
Card Indexes[edit | edit source]
In the 1940s the regional archives created card indexes to the separate volumes of probate records that had been turned over to them. These cards are typed or handwritten. Indexes generally begin with the first volume of probates and go forward, but they do not all end at the same year. The indexes are grouped by registration district (sorenskriveri), then alphabetically by the name of the farm where the deceased lived, and then chronologically by year. The alphabetical arrangement begins with AA followed by A and ends with Æ and Ø.
Each card contains the following information:
- Probate district
- Volume number and inclusive dates
- Page number
- Name of farm or residence
- Date of probate
- Deceased's name
- Spouse's name
- Name of children/heirs
- Assessed value of property
FamilySearch has microfilm copies of the indexes for the following counties:
References[edit | edit source]
- Steinar Imsen and Knut Johannesen, "Skifte", in Norsk Historisk Leksikon, 2nd edition. Oslo: Cappelen Akademisk Forlag, as, 1999