Probate records (which document the process of passing property, both land and various goods, on to one’s heirs) are one of the major types of records used in genealogical research. Heirs may be anybody the testator (the person who made the will) chooses to name, including servants, in-laws, friends, and others. Wills and other papers created during the probate process are often the best possible source to document relationships between family members, particularly parent to child. Persons often identified themselves according to the place (often a town) they came from or were born
When a person left a will (referred to as testate), the probate process documents the will’s validity and completes the wishes of the deceased by the executor or executrix who was named in the will. If the individual did not leave a will (referred to as intestate), the court used the probate to appoint an administrator or administratrix to decide the distribution of assets to heirs and relationships according to the laws of the jurisdiction.
Probate packets or files may include wills, estate inventories or lists of assets, appointments of executors or administrator, administrations or documentation of the distribution of assets, petitions for guardianship of minor children, lists of heirs, and lists of creditors or accounts of debts.
Probate records can be found at the county courthouse. In some cases, older probate records may have been transferred to archives. You can request probate records from the courts. When requesting the record from the courthouse, make sure you order the complete packet or jacket that holds all the papers.
Societies and libraries will have older probate records for some counties. In addition, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City has filmed many probate records.
Use probate records to find date and place of death, residence, names (and addresses) of descendants, and details to search for land records, and to discover other places where the ancestor may have held property, discover relationships, get a feel for ancestor’s economic standing, look for clues about ancestor’s feelings toward family members, find clues to the deaths of other family members, sort out adoptions, guardianships and other unclear relationships, learn names of stores and vendors frequented by your ancestor, find your ancestor’s signature, find occupation, find citizenship, and find marital status.
Throughout my research experiences, I have made it a cardinal rule that before I begin to research any record type, I will take the time to learn about the records, how to research the record, where to find the records, what information is contained in the record, and how I can use the information in my research. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the first time I have researched the record type or the hundredth time, it is important to me to refresh my knowledge so that I am keen and sharp on what I am searching, so as not to miss important details.
Simply being aware of the various records gives me options of how to connect the generations. No one record has all the answers, but combined they give me the ability to resolve my family’s genealogy puzzle through the clues and answers the records offer.
The history of a family over many generations lies buried in different sources and places. Like a good detective, the genealogist must search for the pieces of a family’s past in those many sources such as books, documents, and manuscripts. The genealogist must also be patient and imaginative, because the search can take years and involve a string of clues that lead to new sources. The facts—names, dates, events—that a genealogist gathers through the years are like pieces of a puzzle. Gradually those pieces can be fitted together to make a picture of a family, its many members, and its unique history.
- US military records from World War II and earlier can help family historians
- Bring ancestors to life with photographs
- Finding and using newspapers, periodicals
- Ancestor photographs are important links to the past
- U.S. census records from 1790-1940 are available for researchers