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Taking Your Research to Court

As you set about getting information about your family's genealogy, you may have overlooked a rich source lying either right within your town or close by.


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As you set about getting information about your family's genealogy, you may have overlooked a rich source lying either right within your town or close by. The records kept by local courts offer a wealth of relevant genealogical information.

To find those court offices in your area that may be helpful, first look in the "Government Listings" in the blue pages of your phone book. Don't use a phone book anymore, then head online and do a search for "your town (or county) courts." One of the first results you'll get is a link to, from which you can further search for your town or county. You'll also discover links to the Web sites of individual courts in your town or county. The most useful courts are the Circuit Court, Probate Court, as well as various civil and city courts. However, similar courts in various parts of the country may be known by different names. For instance, the Probate Court for the County of Los Angeles is listed as the Superior Court of Los Angeles County.

Once you decide which types of court records to pursue, you'll need to find out what type each court office keeps. Phone the offices that you're interested in researching and ask specifically what information they have on file. Also, know what information you're seeking before you call. Ask if there's a person in that office with whom you can consult when you visit and develop a friendly relationship with that person in order to ensure that you get the information you're looking for both on your first visit and future visits.

Too often people are under the misconception that the Recorder of Deeds office is only for searching marriage records. It not only keeps all marital records but incorporation records of all sorts, both civil and corporate.

But most likely you'll be in that office to check the marriage records of your ancestors. You'll begin by leafing through large ledgers listing both brides and grooms in alphabetical order. Some offices even have them arranged by year. Usually, you'll find three sets of these books. If you only know the bride's name, you'll be able to do a cross-reference for the groom's, as well, and vice-versa. If you have a copy of the marriage certificate, you can search by marriage license number.

Because people often request copies of records from the Recorder of Deeds, it's important during your first phone call to ask if the office has an information pamphlet that explains how to search and obtain copies of records. To do so, you usually need to fill out an application form. Ask the person in the office if they can mail you a copy of the pamphlet or if the information has been posted online.

Though the Recorder of Deeds provides research for a fee, most encourage genealogists to conduct their own in the office with the assistance of an archivist. If you live some distance from the office, you can pay to have someone do the research for you, but they'll only supply the year, book and page or license number and copy fee information for a document. To obtain the names of other parties, the full date of document, and legal description of property, you'll have to purchase a copy of the document.

If you're looking for immigration and naturalization records, you need to head to the Circuit Court. Unfortunately, these records don't contain much information beyond the name of the person and from where he or she emigrated. If any of your ancestors got divorced, you'll find that information in the Circuit Court office as well.

One of the most well known courts to genealogists is the Probate Court, where you'll find records of wills, estates, administration, guardianships and original papers of the probate. Wills may list all of the heirs by name, provide relationship information to the deceased, as well as where the heirs lived at the time of the record's creation. You'll also find an inventory of the estate. This is especially good when searching wills from the 18th and 19th centuries.

All court proceedings must be published in various legal publications. Within their pages, you'll discover what's going on in the various courts within the federal, state, county, and city, including what's going on in the Federal and Appellate Courts, the Circuit Court, and the Bureau of Vital Statistics. These papers also list new suits in the U.S. District Court, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, plus garnishments, collection of judgements, and U.S. and state tax liens. The Probate Court lists probate docket, minutes, wills received, letters issued, inventories filed, claims allowed and claims filed. Then there are the dockets listed in the local newspapers. These are then microfilmed for future research. You'll find that the case numbers and dates listed in the dockets will simplify getting copies of the original records and documents.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

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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