A will doesn't do anything till the one who wrote it dies, and he might make out several different wills in his lifetime. Maybe his spouse dies and he remarries, maybe he wants to cut somebody out, maybe he decides to leave all his goods to his cat. There are a few rules about being able to cut off your spouse from inheriting anything, but basically, he can leave his stuff to anybody, related or not.
After someone dies, the probate court judge decides this was the last Will and Testament that "John Doe" wrote and it is valid; and these are the folks he said to leave his worldly goods to; and Joe Jones is the person he wanted as his Executor.
First the Executor, Joe Jones (who has been officially designated by the court, which has issued to him a document called Letters Testamentary) has to decide what property John Doe actually owned when he died. Usually that isn't hard, and Joe files an inventory with the probate judge.
After review, then the court says, okay, the official Executor, Joe Jones can go ahead and transfer title on these things to the designated heirs, all as outlined in the will. The Executor probably gets each of the recipients to sign a receipt which the Executor files with the probate court, and then the judge says, okay, this probate matter is concluded because the estate no longer owns any property, and we can close the file.
What makes these probate records interesting to genealogists is that John Doe in listing his beneficiaries probably identifies their relationship to him. "I leave my daughter Anna Doe $20 and the second best bed. I leave my brother Henry Doe my team of horses..." Genealogists like that stuff.
But not everybody makes out a will. If John Doe died without writing a will but owned something, his property still has to go through probate. (No real estate title can change hands without some kind of official document being filed somewhere.) So the family does to the probate judge and says John Doe died thus and such date and we looked and he left no will. And Judge Brown says, "Well, who are his heirs?"
And Anna Doe brings in a document swearing under oath that she is John's daughter, and that he had four other children, two of whom are already dead, but one of them had four children of his own. And she has to give the names of all these heirs and probably their birthdates and death dates and where they live. Probably she asks to be appointed Administrator of the estate, and if the court agrees, then she gets issued an official document designating her as the Administrator.
Probably the court requires her to advertising in the newspaper for any other persons having a claim on John's estate to give them a chance to prove they are related too. Then the law of the state dictates how John's property is divided amongst his heirs. Many states say that in the absence of a will, half would go to a surviving spouse and the ther half would be divided up among the decedent's children or something to that effect. And the law says how surviving parents and siblings fit into the scheme of things.
Then the court decides how John's property gets divided, among which people, and Anna as Administratrix is responsible for distributing it, getting receipts, and reporting back to the probate court.
These records are really great for helping genealogists determine blood ties because they are very explicit usually and may be more helpful than probates where there is a will. Of course, the real reason for probate laws is first of all to protect creditors of the deceased, and then to see that property distributions occur in an orderly manner.
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