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Probate Records: Tips and Pitfalls

Probate courts in the United States deal with families, mainly death and inheritances. The most important information in probate court records for genealogists is proof of relationships.


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Probate courts in the United States deal with families, mainly death and inheritances. The most important information in probate court records for genealogists is proof of relationships.In fact, the word probate means "to prove."

Probate records are generally available at the county courthouse. Also, many probate records have been microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah and copies can be obtained through your local Family History Center. However, be aware that there are several types of probate records. The best sources are usually the "estate packets" which contain the deceased person's original will, along with court notes. The court reporter usually copied the will and notes into bound will books which were also kept in the courthouse. These bound will books were microfilmed instead of the estate packets because they were much easier to film (it is difficult to film estate packets because they are folded). Sometimes clerks made mistakes in copying, so look for the originals. When possible, it's best to go to the county courthouse and look at all extant probate records, including the estate packets.

There are several potential problems in using probate records that all genealogists should be aware of:

1. The list of children may be incomplete. Some may have already received their share of the inheritance, or may have died.

2. The wife may not be the mother of the children listed. (The children's mother may have passed away and the father remarried.)

3. It is difficult to determine middle names or ages from a list of names. Children are not necessarily listed in chronological order.

4. Relationships may be problematic, due to different uses of terms.

5. If you find the name of your ancestor in a will, it is still necessary to prove that your ancestor and the person named in the will are the same person.

Here are some other points to note:

1. The estate may not have been settled until the last child reached adulthood. Thus, probate & court records should be checked for at least two decades.

2. "Infants" may have been on the verge of adulthood (the term may apply to any child under the age of 18 or 21).

3. Children of "tender age" were usually under age 14.

4. If one heir receives only a token amount of money, check deeds & tax records to see if that person already received property in advance.

5. If a grandchild receives a special share, it is often the child or a deceased son or unmarried daughter (the child lacked a male provider).

6. Debts, property or beneficiaries mentioned from another region may be clues to a prior residence.

7. If slaves were manumitted (freed), it may be for one of several reasons. If all slaves were freed, it might have been because of religious scruples. If children (especially mulatto) were freed, it may be a clue to kinship. If a slave couple or elderly slave were freed, it was probably because of long and faithful service.

8. Codicils are addendums to existing wills. Look for codicils; they usually deal with considerable changes in family circumstances and have useful information for genealogists.

Probate records can be extremely helpful to genealogists, but we need to read them carefully to make sure we understand the terms and don't jump to conclusions. And when possible, we should search the original estate packets instead of relying on copies. Happy searching!

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

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

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