Finding Probate Records

by Ruby Coleman

Probate files are among the most sought after sources by genealogists. Not all of our ancestors left wills and understanding that provides insight into furthering our research.

Before proceeding with probate research, it it important to understand the types of probate. They are basically testate which means that a person had a last will and testament at the time of his or her death. Intestate means that they died not have a last will and testament. The important documents sound in either of these are:

  • Testate
    • Last Will and Testament
    • Petition for Probate of Will
    • Distribution of Estate
  • Intestate
    • Petition for Administration
    • Letters of Administration
    • Distribution of Estate

By the time your ancestor reached an advanced age, he may have divided his real estate and personal property among the heirs. According to various state laws, estates under a certain value are sometimes never probated. Perhaps your ancestor was too poor to have left any estate.

When land has been distributed, gifted or sold to heirs prior to a death, you should always check the land records. In some cases the deeds will not be recorded and filed until a much later date. Do not narrow your research to a limited time period.

It is helpful when dealing with these situations to study the laws of the state in which your ancestor lived. Learn more about probate laws and also how land transactions were handled. Look for quit claim deeds as these are conveyances for the transfer of property between heirs or to a non-family person. Do not look in the indexes for just your ancestor's surname. If there were married daughters, check their surnames.

If your ancestor left a will, always look at the distribution papers of the estate, along with any items in other court records pertaining to contested estates. If minor children were involved, look at guardianships. These records will often be found in the court of probate records.

Do you know when your ancestor died? In one specific family I was told that my ancestor died during the Civil War. When no probate record was found, I looked at the land records where I discovered he was alive beyond the Civil War and that he had gifted property to a daughter.

If at all possible, look at probate records within the courthouse or office where they are being held. Do your own research! If you write to a courthouse, chances are you may not receive photocopies of everything they have in the probate file. Microfilm of probate records is available through the Family History Library (LDS). Almost always they have filmed the recorded will found in bound volumes and not the original. There may be a probate docket file available in the courthouse. This will contain the actual will, distribution papers and other interesting items.

Some states and counties have direct indexes to testators and also to executors and beneficiaries. Do not limit the time frame when looking at the indexes. Intestate records can sometimes be found in separate files from the testate records. Be sure to look at court order books for more information.

When your ancestor did not leave a will, check for wills of his children. There may be mention in those of land left to them by their father or other relatives. This type of research will undoubtedly provide information along with significant clues to open more doors for research.

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