Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tuesday's Tip - Find Probate Records of your Ancestors

Today's Tuesday's Tip is to:  Search for, find, and carefully read Probate Records for your ancestral families.

Probate records include wills, administrations, inventories, bonds, affidavits, distributions, receipts, accounts, and so on.  They often include guardianship records for orphaned children.  Probate records for deceased persons are either testate (with a valid will) or intestate (without a valid will).  A will usually names an executor (executrix if female), and if it does not, then the court will name an administrator.  If the deceased was intestate, the Probate Court will appoint an administrator (administratrix if female).  Usually, the names of the heirs-at-law of a deceased person, with their relationship to the deceased and their residence, will be listed in an intestate probate.  Inventories detail the real and personal property held by the deceased person.

Where can you find probate records for your ancestral families?  The "easy" answer is in the Probate Court offices in the jurisdiction where the person died, or had substantial property.  In most U.S. states, that will be a county Probate Court, although some New England states had District Courts for one or more towns until the 20th century.  If you go to a Probate Court office (at least in New England), the probate cases are filed in packets with a packet number.  In the packet will be all of the papers that concerned the particular case.  In some Probate Courts, you cannot access the packets and will have to rely on microfilms of the Probate Court clerk records.

In general, probate record indexes are not online, and the actual probate records (the wills, inventories, etc.) are almost never online, unless they have been published in an eBook, a website or blog.  Some probate records, especially wills, from the 17th century have been published in books available at genealogy libraries.

If you cannot easily access the probate packets at a local courthouse or archive, you can probably access them on microfilm at your local LDS Family History Center.  Search the online Family History Library Catalog (  for your state and county of interest, and select Probate Records from the list.  Look first for an index of probate records, order that microfilm, and find all of the potential probate record packet numbers or volume/page numbers.  Then order those packets, volume/page numbers for your targets.  Copy the pages (all of them if possible) to paper, or to a flash drive to upload to your computer.  Read the pages carefully, noting names and relationships.  Transcribe the papers if you can and add them to the notes in your genealogy database.

My belief is that many previously unsolved relationship problems of parents to children will be solved once the FHLC microfilms of county probate records are indexed and put online by FamilySearch.  The indexes are name-rich, and so are the actual probate records.  Many more parents of married daughters (those Sarah --?-- in our databases that appear in the 1850 census without any other clue to their parentage), and parents of sons with common surnames, will be found once these records are indexed. 

For examples of what you might find, check my Amanuensis Monday blog posts - there are over 60 posts in that series, and most of them are probate record transcriptions.  I love Probate Records!

 The papers in a Probate Packet in a courthouse are original sources (first writing of the record), with primary information (first-hand information known to the writers) and direct evidence (provides specific name, date, location, relationship information) - the very best sort of family history data.  The papers found on the FHLC microfilms of the Probate Court clerk records are image copies of derivative sources (since they are not the first writing, but a clerk's copy), but they almost always are the best resource you can find if you cannot access the Probate Packets at the courthouse or on microfilm. 

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