Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Tuesday's Tip: Wills and Probate Records on Ancestry.com

The record collections in the Wills and Probate Records on Ancestry.com are some of my favorite collections.  These collections for every state are available only on Ancestry.com in this format.  Other websites have collections that may provide more probate records for a given state, especially FamilySearch.org.
The description of the Massachusetts Wills and Probate Records collection on Ancestry.com says (typical for a state collection):
This collection includes images of probate records for all counties in the state of Massachusetts. Probate records are among the most valuable records available for American genealogy but can be challenging to access because originals are kept in courthouses across the country. These records come from a collection of microfilm that took years to compile. They have been brought together from multiple courthouses over time to give you a single source to search. Some localities and time periods may not be included because they were not available to be acquired as part of this collection, or the records may have been lost or destroyed before the effort to collect them all began. If you are looking for a probate record and believe it to be from a county or year range that is not included in this collection, you can try contacting the appropriate county courthouse to see if the records are available. For details on which counties and records are included in this collection, please explore the browse menu.
About Probate Records
Probate records relate to a deceased person’s estate, whether that estate is “testate” (through a will) or “intestate” (without a will). Whether the decedent left a large estate or just some personal property, there’s a good chance that a probate file exists in a local court that oversaw distribution of property, the guardianship of a minor, or payment of debts.
The contents of a probate file can vary from case to case, but certain details are found in most probates, most importantly, the names and residences of beneficiaries and their relationship to the decedent. An inventory of the estate assets can reveal personal details about the deceased’s occupation and lifestyle. There may also be references to debts, deeds, and other documents related to the settling of the estate.
Note: Some of the records in this collection are organized in packets. As you browse these images we have included a table of contents to help you navigate. If nothing is provided in the table of contents, that suggests the record consists of a single document.
On Ancestry.com, there are a number of record collections for countries, states and/or counties for Wills and Probates.  The search result for an exact last name of "seaver" shows 1,015 indexed entries (some are duplicate entries) in all of the Ancestry Wills, Estates and Guardian Records collections:

It is important to understand what these collections at Ancestry.com represent and include.  In years past, FamilySearch made microfilms of probate records from almost every county in every state in the USA.  FamilySearch digitized most of them, and they are collected by state (usually) on the FamilySearch Historical Record collections page, or on digital microfilm in the Family History Library Catalog.  In general, the FamilySearch collections on microfilm were not indexed into a searchable database.  FamilySearch and Ancestry agreed that Ancestry.com could add these records to their collection if they made a searchable index for the records.  Ancestry did this, and the records are searchable on Ancestry, but are not yet searchable on FamilySearch for some reason.  

In summary, there are millions of digitized images for probate records on both Ancestry.com and FamilySearch, but only Ancestry has a searchable name index.

Each county in every state has many volumes of probate records for wills, administrations, guardianships, etc.  The original probate papers, collected during an estate case, are usually put into a packet and filed sequentially in a file in a probate court system.  There are usually record books that index the names of the persons who are subjects of the probate packets.  Many of the individual papers in a probate packet are usually copied into a probate court record book for court use.  The court record books usually have an index at the front or back of the record book.  The FamilySearch microfilms may have been made of the index to the probate packets, the original papers in the probate packets, and the probate court clerk records, or only one or two of the three sets of microfilms.

Some caveats:

*  The Ancestry.com indexing of the microfilm images was imperfect; some subjects in a court clerk record book were not indexed because there was two or more estates on a specific page.  I wrote about some of these problems in Some Ancestry.com's Massachusetts Wills and Probate Records Waypoints are Wrong.  In a case like this, accessing the county probate estate index and/or the individual county clerk book indexed may find the missing estate papers.

*  Also, some FamilySearch probate record collections were pulled from the Ancestry.com collection because of database permission issues.  For example, probate records from New Jersey before 1804 were pulled from Ancestry.com about a month after being released in 2016.  In cases like this, the researcher needs to go to the state archive or other repository.  

*  Each of the collections have a different cutoff date, and often each county will have a different cutoff date.  Many of the cutoff dates are in the early 20th century, so you may not find probate records online at Ancestry or FamilySearch after a cutoff date in a specific county or state.  In that case, the researcher needs to go to the state archive or county probate record repository.

I entered "seaver" as an exact surnames in the "Last Name" search field in the Massachusetts Wills and Probates Records, 1635-1991 collection, and received 150 results:

I clicked on the "View Record" for Nathan H. Seaver to see what papers were available for him in Middlesex County:

This entry was for the records in a probate packet, and include will papers, administration papers, petition papers, and inventory papers.

I clicked on the Will Papers link and saw the first image of the Will Papers for Nathan H. Seaver.  Ancestry provides a description of the record on the right-hand side of the screen.  The user can select the microfilm icon at the bottom of the screen to see the microfilm film strip of the records.

The researcher can Save the record images (button in upper right corner) to an Ancestry tree person, to their shoebox, or to their computer.  It is recommended that a descriptive file name be used for each page of the downloaded record.  The Ancestry record name for the image above is "
007553602_00585,jpg"  I would rename this image to be:  "NathanHSeaver-1884-Probate-MiddlesexCoMA-Packet17819-page1of14-image585of1534"; I would save it to my Seaver Family file on my computer hard drive.

After downloading the images, I usually try to write an abstract of the probate file, noting names, dates, places, heirs, inventory information, etc. and add that to the probate Event in the person profile my RootsMagic family tree.  For my ancestors, I try to transcribe each paper and add the transcription to the computer file with the probate paper images and add it to the probate Event in the person profile in RootsMagic.

The probate packet papers are Original Source records, and the court clerk book records are Derivative Source records (because they are a copy of the original).  The records are Primary Information (since they were recorded based on an eyewitness informant) and Direct Evidence (of names, relationships, dates, locations, etc.).

I use these databases extensively to find my ancestors, my relatives, and other persons in my family tree.  The RootsMagic program I use accesses Ancestry WebHints that include the state wills and probate records databases


NOTE:  Tuesday's Tips is a genealogy blog meme intended to provide information about a resource helpful to genealogists and family historians, especially in the online genea-world.

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1 comment:

kdduncan said...

It's worth noting that the will and probate records on Ancestry can also be accessed through Heritage Quest. That's how I access them.