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Family History in Probate

When searching though probate records, many people stop when they find a will.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Karan Pittman
Word Count: 784 (approx.)
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When searching through probate records, many people stop when they find a will. Names of spouses, children, grandchildren and heirs are all present in wills, as well as the names of witnesses. These clues may lead a researcher to another generation or another family line. It is important to remember that, although a will provides many clues, it may be only the beginning of a treasure trove of information.

Often a codicil to a will is included in the probate records. The codicil will also be recorded in the probate court minutes, called "inferior court minutes" in many counties. The ruling of the judge regarding the will and the codicil will also be in the record. Sometimes these codicils provide insight into changing family relationships. Children or grandchildren who were born after the original will was written are often included here.

The inventory of the estate will also be found in the probate records. This inventory will provide fascinating clues about your ancestor's life and financial state. All personal property is listed in the early probate records, and this gives an indicator to a person's lifestyle. In one instance, an inventory for an estate in 1838 revealed eight beds and eight bureaus, as well as three side tables. This was a lot of furniture for one family. After seeing the probate record, some research was conducted, and it was discovered that the person, Thomas Jenkins, had run a wayfarer's tavern in the 1830's, and the inventory of the furniture revealed that to the descendants.

If a lot of farm equipment and livestock is listed, it stands to reason that the person was a farmer or involved in agriculture. Different tools may reveal different trades, such as blacksmithing, carpentry, cobbler, milliner, and preacher. Books were often listed in these records, as well as clothing and shoes. These items are all clues to your ancestor's identity. Slaves in an inventory indicated that your ancestor was at least comfortable monetarily, if not well-to-do. Often the inventory lists will lead you to other places to research.

In the will, many of the beneficiaries may not have been around to claim the inheritance. This information is often found in the probate records, and it will assist the researcher in finding out about the families. Heirs may die, or they may have married and had name changes. With all the moving around in the 1800's, some of the heirs may not have been located, thus, making their spouses or their descendants the heirs. A list of the beneficiaries will help to clarify family relationships.

Often the estate or part of the inventory will be sold or auctioned. The inventory was needed as cash for the family. These records provide an amazing amount of information. Look down the lists to see who bought what. In the 1830's in Fayette County, Georgia, the sale of the estate of Mark Smallwood revealed several of his children, among them Milligan. Although Milligan Smallwood had long been accepted as one of Mark's sons, no piece of proof was evident until the sale of the estate. Milligan's purchase was recorded. Often the list of buyers reveals other relatives to the deceased. These people may provide another avenue to research.

Often a listing of the bills, invoices, and receipts will be included in the probate records. These bills may give you some insight into the lifestyle of your ancestors. For instance, school tuition payments may indicate a high social position in the community. Doctor's bills may indicate some family illness. The bills themselves may indicate how the family supports itself.

With this list of bills is often found a list of people or businesses who owe the estate. These records may provide some clues as to relationship. Relatives may have been loaned money by the deceased, or children may have received money. Friends may also have been loaned money. These lists often provide tantalizing clues to the family.

Some of the most common, and the most productive, documents in the probate records are the guardianship documents. These documents may relate to widows and/or minor children. The actual appointment and names of the guardians will be in the court documents. These names may lead you to other relatives or to another a family line. Sometimes the guardians are court appointed but, as a rule, even the court tried to appoint relatives or friends of the family.

Records indicating the final disposition of an estate may lead you to addresses or place names for heirs. These records detail who received what from the estate.

It is important to remember not to stop with a will. Keep on looking in the probate records and see what other important information you can unearth about your ancestors!

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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