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Is Johnny a Jr.? Using Probate and Land Records to Prove Parent/Child Relationships

After exhausting vital, census, and cemetery records, probate and land records may help to strengthen relationships between your ancestor and their parent or child.


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So you've exhausted the easy sources—plowed through vital records, scoured cemeteries, perused county histories and censuses—but you still haven't found what you're looking for. You seek a single record that would state the relationship between parent and child that you have tried relentlessly to prove. Although probate and land records are generally not indexed and span volumes or fill endless microfilm rolls, taking the extra time to use them may make a difference.

Probate Records

Some probate records (wills, bonds, letters of administration) name relatives of the deceased. Research techniques will vary based on whether the deceased died testate or intestate.1 In some cases, the deceased names a child as the executor (testate) or administrator (intestate) of his estate. Sometimes, a will may name each of the deceased's children, although they may not be in order by age and may have unrecognizable married surnames. In other instances, the will may simply name relatives of the deceased, but neglect to include the relationship the two share. In the last case, more creative analysis may help to solve the problem.

Historically, estates were divided up between the wife and children of a deceased male if he did not leave a will.2 The parent may will land or other property to a child, while not mentioning the relationship. The willing of land to a proposed child may seal the relationship deal—without being directly stated. In other cases, the court may distribute an equal share of the parent's property to a child when the parent died intestate (or without a will).

Land Records

Land records can also hold clues to familial relationships. Although land record indexes are rarely typewritten (sometimes barely legible!) and contain hundreds of entries in each volume, they are worth the effort. The first instance of land records plotting out parent/child relationships is rather common - a parent gives land to a child by "deed of gift" for little or no payment; or for "love and affection;" for promise to care for in old age; or other reasons such as "valuable considerations." Pay attention to the price of the land per acre, even if no relationship clues are mentioned in the deed.

A second clue may be that a child pays property taxes on land or chattels (goods) purchased by the parent that were not sold or exchanged during the parent's lifetime. In states such as Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania, tax records combined with such land records can be a valuable pair.

A third example of strengthening a parent/child relationship with land records appears when the child sells the same piece of property the parent owned during their lifetime—especially, but not exclusively, the land the parent lived on. While researching my mysterious Monmouth County, New Jersey ancestors, I was able to use this technique. After the same process of exhausting the vital, census, and cemetery records, I turned to land records. The wife of an ancestor I had focused much of my efforts on had received a dowry from her father—commonly money, property, or goods that a woman brings to a marriage. While I had not found a transaction of a man I thought to be her father deeding his land to anyone, several years after his death, the son-in-law sold a portion of the land the father-in-law had been living on. While no record exists naming them as such, I was able to determine the relationship of the father and daughter.

While a single record stating the relationship sure settles the genealogist's stomach and eases their aching curiosity, the techniques discussed here and some hard work may provide the clues needed to feel confident about questionable parent and child relationships.

1  Testate: The state of an individual's estate when he or she dies and has left a will. Intestate: The state of an individual's estate when he or she dies and has not left will.

2  The amount of the estate given to each relative may vary based on location and time period.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

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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