Estate Records and Files
by Ruby Coleman
Individuals who die without a last will and testament are said to die intestate. Even though it is very helpful for genealogists to locate a last will and testament, there may be more records than you realize for intestate individuals.
In most cases there was some type of property, personal or real, to disburse. Finding the records that settle intestate estates can be tricky but worth the effort. First determine which ancestors most likely died intestate and then determine where they died and/or owned real property (real estate).
If you are visiting a courthouse where the person died, always ask for probate files, both testate and intestate. In some cases you will find docket files for intestate settlements within the testate files. If this is not the case, check the county court records for mention of a settlement of intestate cases. In this case you will need to know approximately when the person died and what court records are available for those years.
According to the jurisdiction of the state where the records are filed, intestate files are sometimes referred to as estate papers. They may be filed with a higher court, such as a superior court. If the county court does not have these type of files, inquire as to where they may be located. In some cases they may have been sent to a state archives or library.
Should you be unable to visit a courthouse, there are other options. One is to write to a courthouse inquiring about the intestate or estate files. Be sure to supply them with the name of your ancestor and date of death. If the records are not in their jurisdiction, ask where they are currently located.
Option number two is to use microfilm of records. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has an enormous collection of probate records on microfilm. Browse their catalog at , searching by county and then topic, such as probate or court records. For the time period of your interest, be sure to look at what is available in those areas. Your ancestor's death and estate may be mentioned in a court order book. If there are estate files, read about those as to how and when they were collected. Microfilm can be ordered and used through any of the LDS church's Family History Centers.
If a will is contested, there may be files and records in court order books and also estate files. Always keep in mind that a will can be contested by family members or the division of land by non-family members. Excellent records naming heirs and their locations are often found in these type of records. If a spouse remarried, children by a previous marriage may contest the will, thus creating a multitude of enlightening records as to names, locations and relationships.
In cases that involve land, there may be descriptions of the land, information on neighbors and their land and when it was acquired. You may even find plat maps showing the land in question. These are all helpful in learning more about your ancestors.
Inventories and sale lists may be included in estate files. Interesting information can be found as to what personal effects your ancestors had at the time of his or her death. There may be documents pertaining to a widow's allowance or relief and later documents as to whether she remarried.
Old letters in my family mentioned a disagreement between my grandmother, her parents and her cousin's husband. Never learning more about this, it seemed a dead issue. The cause was found in estate papers when my great grandfather was sued by his niece over the land they inherited from his parents. Many pages of information are contained in the estate file which in its original form is in the North Carolina State Archives. I was able to use microfilm of the file at a Family History Center.
Keep in mind that it may take years to settle estates, particularly if they are being contested. Land may need to be partitioned or sold and more records may exist in another area of the courthouse. Be sure to check land records, mortgage records and tax lists.
What once was a peaceful family may be torn apart through the death of a family member and the settling of an estate. Just because your ancestor didn't leave a will doesn't mean there is nothing further to locate.
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