"How do I get the probate records from the 19th century?"
There has been one answer so far, which offered information about an index on Ancestry, and links to several websites with more information. The question was specific to Worcester County, Massachusetts, but the answers below apply to the other counties in Massachusetts (and to Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire counties also, but not to Rhode Island and Connecticut).
Having done quite a bit of this type of research over the last 20 years, I want to offer three possible solutions:
1) Go to the Massachusetts Courthouse of interest and gain access to the probate packets for the persons you want to see. You should contact them ahead of time for hours, parking availability, rules for access, and restrictions on photographing or copying documents.
The process to identify, order and find probate records using the Family History Library microfilms is a multi-step process:
a) You need to find an index of probate records for the state and county in question. The LDS Family History Library Catalog (online at https://www.familysearch.org/catalog-search) can help you determine which film to order for the indexes. Order the film (you can do this online at https://familysearch.org/films/) that might have the name of your target ancestor (the index is usually alphabetic) in the county where you think he resided and might have left an estate.
b) When the film comes into the FamilySearch Center, you can find your target ancestor and determine the probate packet number. Be sure to check for alternate spellings. Be aware that there may be no probate record for your target ancestor. Some indexes may have specialized indexes and the entries may not be in alphabetical order.
c) Go back to the Family History Library Catalog and find the film number for that probate packet. Order that film. In some counties (Middlesex, Massachusetts is one), the films will contain the actual probate record packet papers - you can skip the rest of this list!). Go directly to g) below!
d) When the probate packet index microfilm comes into the FamilySearch Center, you can search the probate packet film for your target ancestor and write down (or copy) the entries for the different papers on the list - the administration, will, inventory, etc. These will be in terms of Volume and Page number for each item. These different papers are usually the clerk's copy of the records, entered into record books as they were filed with the Probate Court. They may be in more than one volume of the records.
e) Go back to the Family History Library Catalog and find the microfilm number(s) for the volume(s) and page(s) on the probate packet index. Order those microfilm(s).
f) When the probate volume microfilm(s) comes into the FamilySearch Center, you can search the microfilm(s) for the specific records, using the Volume number and Page number as finding aids.
3) Wait for FamilySearch to add the name indexes, the probate packet indexes and the probate record volumes to their historical record collections. There are already large probate record collections for many states (search for "probate" at https://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/list). However, the only Massachusetts probate records available are for Plymouth County.
When you find the records by volume and page, note that these are usually transcriptions of the original documents entered into the court record by a clerk, and therefore are not the original documents (they are record copies) - the originals are still in the probate packets at the Probate Court or other repository.
Some of the Massachusetts county probate name indexes are online at www.ancestry.com and perhaps other web sites. Some of the probate packet indexes may be available to view, on microfilm, at New England Historic Genealogical Society and other repositories.
The process for other states is similar - but the court names may be different and the detailed process may be different.
That seems pretty complicated, but if you are not in Massachusetts with access to the Probate court records, it is the easiest and cheapest way to access these great records.
Further information about Massachusetts Probate Records can be found at:
Needless to say, probate records are some of the very best records to find for your ancestors since they are usually primary information in original sources that is direct evidence of relationships - pretty much a gold standard on the Genealogical Proof Standard scale.
The URL for this post is: http://www.geneamusings.com/2012/12/how-can-i-obtain-massachusetts-probate.html
Copyright (c) 2012, Randall J. Seaver