How to Use Wills and Estate Records to Learn About Your Ancestors

Getty / John Turner

Some of the most genealogically-rich documents on an individual are actually created following their death. While many of us actively search for an ancestor's obituary or tombstone, however, we often overlook probate records - a big mistake! Generally well-documented, accurate, and packed with numerous details, probate records can often provide answers to many stubborn genealogical problems.

Probate documents, in general terms, are records created by a court after an individual's death that relate to the distribution of his or her estate.

If the individual left a will (known as testate), then the purpose of the probate process was to document its validity and see that it was carried out by the executor named in the will. In cases where an individual did not leave a will (known as intestate), then probate was used to appoint an administrator or administratrix to determine the distribution of assets according to formulas set by the laws of the jurisdiction.

What You May Find in a Probate File

Probate packets or files may include any of the following, depending upon the jurisdiction and time period:

  • wills
  • estate inventories, or lists of assets
  • appointments of executors or administrators
  • administrations, or documentation of the distribution of assets
  • petitions for guardianship of minor children
  • lists of heirs
  • lists of creditors or accounts of debts

...and other records considered to be important to the settlement of an estate.

Understanding the Probate Process

While laws governing the probate of a deceased's estate have varied according to time period and jurisdiction, the probate process usually follows a basic process:

  1. An heir, creditor, or other interested party initiated the probate process by presenting a will for the deceased (if applicable) and petitioning the court for the right to settle an estate. This petition was usually filed with the court that served the area where the deceased owned property or last resided.
  1. If the individual left a will, it was presented to the court along with testimony of witnesses as to its authenticity. If accepted by the probate court, a copy of the will was then recorded in a will book maintained by the clerk of court. The original will was often retained by the court and added to other documents pertaining to the settlement of the estate to create a probate packet.
  2. If a will designated a particular individual, then the court formally appointed that person to serve as executor or executrix of the estate and authorized him or her to proceed by issuing letters testamentary. If there was no will, then the court appointed an administrator or administratrix - usually a relative, heir, or close friend - to oversee the estate's settlement by issuing letters administration.
  3. In many cases, the court required the administrator (and sometimes the executor) to post a bond to ensure that he would properly complete his duties. One or more people, often family members, were required to co-sign the bond as "sureties."
  4. An inventory of the estate was conducted, usually by people with no claim to the property, culminating in a list of property - from land and buildings down to teaspoons and chamber pots!
  1. Potential beneficiaries named in the will were identified and contacted. Notices were published in area newspapers to reach anyone who might have claims on or obligations to the deceased's estate.
  2. Once bills and other outstanding obligations on the estate were met, the estate was formally divided and distributed among the heirs. Receipts are signed by anyone receiving a portion of the estate.
  3. A final statement of account was presented to the probate court, which then ruled the estate as closed. The probate packet was then filed in the records of the court.

What You Can Learn From Probate Records

Probate records provide a rich resource of genealogical and even personal information about an ancestor which can often lead to still other records, such as land records.

Probate records almost always include:

  • Full name
  • Date and place of death

Probate records may also include:

  • Marital Status
  • Name of spouse
  • Names of children (and possibly birth order)
  • Names of children's spouses of married daughters
  • Names of grandchildren
  • Relationships between family members
  • Clues to the trade or occupation of your ancestor
  • Citizenship
  • Residences of your ancestor and living descendants
  • Locations (and descriptions) where your ancestor owned property
  • Feelings of your ancestor toward family members
  • Clues to the deaths of other family members
  • Clues to adoptions or guardianships
  • Inventory of items owned by the deceased
  • Clues to your ancestor's economic standing (e.g. debts, property)
  • Your ancestor's signature

How to Find Probate Records

Probate records can usually be found in the local courthouse (county, district, etc.) that presided over the area where your ancestor died. Older probate records may have been moved from the local courthouse to a larger regional facility, such as a state or provincial archives. Contact the clerk's office of the court where the person resided at the time of death for information on the location of probate records for the time period in which you are interested.

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Powell, Kimberly. "How to Use Wills and Estate Records to Learn About Your Ancestors." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2017, thoughtco.com/probing-into-probate-records-1420839. Powell, Kimberly. (2017, September 1). How to Use Wills and Estate Records to Learn About Your Ancestors. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/probing-into-probate-records-1420839 Powell, Kimberly. "How to Use Wills and Estate Records to Learn About Your Ancestors." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/probing-into-probate-records-1420839 (accessed November 22, 2017).