Friday, February 2, 2007

Finding Probate Records in Massachusetts

One of the questions that pops up every once in awhile on the Massachusetts Rootsweb mailing list is "how do I find probate records?"

I posted the following on the board this morning, based on my own experiences:

Since you are in Boston, it may be easier to go to the probate court offices of each county, although there are parking issues and record access issues at some locations. I would recommend you try going to one of these sites and see if you can be successful. I have only been to Worcester for these records, and it was hectic in the main room where you order the probate packets, and difficult and expensive (50 cents a page?) to get copies made in a timely manner.

Another alternative - and by far the best one for those not in New England - is to access the probate records using microfilms on loan from the LDS Family History Library. You need to go to an LDS Family History Center to order them, however. I think you can order them at NEHGS in Boston, and perhaps other large genealogy repositories, also.

Finding the actual probate records is usually a six-step process:

1) You need to find an index of probate records for the state and county in question. The LDS Family History Library Catalog (online at can help you determine which film to order for the indexes. Order the film with the name of your target ancestor in the county that you think he resided and might have left an estate.

2) Once you get the index, you can find your target ancestor and determine the probate packet number. Be sure to check alternate spellings. Be aware that there may be no probate record for your target ancestor.

3) Go back to the FHLC and find the film number for that probate packet. Order that film.

4) Search the probate packet film for your target ancestor and write down (or copy) the entries for administration, will, inventory, etc. These will be in terms of Volume and Page number for each item.

5) Go back to the FHLC and find the films for those volumes and pages. Order those film(s).

6) Search the film(s) for the specific records, and either transcribe them, abstract them, or copy them.

For some counties (one is Middlesex in Massachusetts), the records have been filmed as whole probate packets - the original documents - and you skip steps 5 and 6 - the probate packet film has the records to transcribe, abstract or copy. For other counties (Worcester in Massachusetts is one) you have to go through the six step process above.

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 - the originals are still in the probate packets at the record repository.

Some of the Massachusetts county probate packet indexes are online at and perhaps other web sites. Some of the probate packet indexes may be available to view, on film, at NEHGS and other repositories.

In San Diego, the FHC has Middlesex and several other county indexes on permanent loan, so ordering the film in step 1 can be eliminated.

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 court records, it is the easiest and cheapest way to access these great records.

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.

UPDATE: Over 200 of the early (pre-1700) Essex County (MA) wills have been transcribed and placed online at

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