BEGINNING LESSON #32
Wills and Probate Records
Last week's lesson provided an overview to courthouse records for genealogical research. My example was of a step-great-grandfather's will mentioning heirs by name. This is perhaps the main reason we hope to unearth the wills of our elusive ancestors - the confirmation of
familial relationship signed and sealed by the testator.
Many have written to say their ancestors were lowly farmers, obviously of humble means, and that there would have been no need for a will. In that case, you can bet he owed someone some money when he died! His estate most certainly went through probate. I think of probate as a general reckoning of what money is owed, how much is available after the funeral expenses, and who gets what in the final analysis.
It might help to understand that probate records might be available
on your "poor" ancestors if you realize that seemingly insignificant items like belt buckles, a linen shirt and a wooden bucket are items of value mentioned in colonial wills and probate records.
During that period, the average man probably owned one good pair of pants and two linen shirts. It took months to grow the flax to weave the linen and to sew the shirt. Remember that even with the arrival of the industrial
age in the mid 1800s, the majority of people had only a few pieces of clothing.
The grandiose wealth of post-WWII United States is not the financial norm from a historical
perspective. Of course, if your 17th-19th century ancestor was highly-placed socially, more than likely much has already been done on his family
history, including the discovery of his will and distribution of assets. Alas, the rest of us must scurry for meager clues from whatever obscure records have withstood the ravages of time. Inheritable items might include: feather beds, wagon box, pick axes,
spectacles, shoes, a leather strap, 1 milking cow, two silver spoons, a quilt, an overcoat, and a book of poems.
Indeed land, cattle, horses, even slaves changed hands on the death of the father,
brother or uncle. Its interesting to note that the idea of an estate passing to wives is a relatively new legal concept. Late 20th century customs often dictate that the wife obtains at least half of the estate. Women did not have the right to own property in many societies of the past. Indeed, if she were to inherit property, it often
became the possession of her husband on their marriage. He could dispense with the inheritance as he willed without consulting her. Amazingly
archaic? Is my prejudice is showing?
will & probate terms
listing where an indexer withdraws what he considers essential
information, naming more than just the testator and the date. Not to
be confused with a transcribed will.
court appointed individual who distributes the assets among the
heirs where no will has been stipulated. Usually next of kin.
employed to locate "all of my children" in determining
legal heirs, usually found in newspapers.
who are named in the will or insurance policy to receive
proceeds. Relationships may or may not be stipulated.
See in particular Helen Leary's discussion of clues from percentage
of monies received, listed below in For Further Reading.
summary which lists the deceased by name, date of death, date &
locality where will was proved, executors or administrators and
value of estate
addendum to a will.
appointed by the testator to see that the requests in the will are
minor children are given a legal representative, usually in another
by at least two people
a person dies without a will
listing of the assets of the deceased including personal property,
real estate, account books, cash, stocks & bonds.
deceased's name, address, occupation, date of death, locality, value
of estate; also name, address and relationship of administrator.
the testator dictated his will orally.
reckoning of debts and assets where the estate goes through a legal
accounting of who is to receive proceeds from an estate of a
the individual dies with a will.
individual whose "taking out" the will.
for word write up of the exact contents of a will. Refer to
the original will because there can be errors due to interpretation
of handwriting and the age of the document.
the will was not located or presented to the court after the death
of the testator. Some may have been replaced by a subsequent
who sign/swear that the will is the true testament of the
testator. These are often family or migration cluster group
members, so be sure to take note.
Other documents you may encounter are petitions for probate,
nominations of guardianship, guardian bonds, appraisals, notice to heirs,
notice to creditors, conservator accounts, settlement papers, ledgers,
orders of distribution, estate taxes.
Reviewing wills and probate proceedings from local courthouse records provide obvious clues to family relationships.
There might possibly be clues to towns of origin in the old country. If money is sent back to a distant cousin who lives in a tiny section of London, you'd best begin to search for other family members in that local!
Look at a good bibliography of genealogy reference works for your ancestor's locality to determine what indexes or abstracts of wills are in printed
form. PERSI (Periodical Source Index) is a great reference for finding even obscure genealogical society publications of indexes and abstracts. Either way, you'll
need to obtain a copy of the original documents to avoid possible transcription errors.
If your are lucky, you can obtain a copy of probate records via microfilm, perhaps through the LDS Family History Library Catalog, available now online at:
(click the custom search tab to locate the FHLC)
US researchers may check Everton's Handybook for
Genealogists or Ancestry's Redbook to see which court has jurisdiction in each county, and the time period when wills and probate records began to be kept. Write to courthouses only when all other avenues of research into wills and probate records have been exhausted.
Neglecting to look at wills and probate records means you'd miss out on this little peek into history!
You'll learn more about your ancestor's daily life in his will, oddly enough, by seeing what he considered valuable inheritable implements and property. Don't think that he/she preferred the eldest son because he inherited the family estate. It might have been the prevailing process at the time.
Then again, you might find an interesting entry where an heir received $1 compared to millions left to a sibling.
Daily Genealogy Columnist
America Online Keyword: roots or myrtle
For Further Reading:
Eakle, Arlene H. Chapter 7 "Research in Court
Records" The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, revised
edition. Loretto Dennis Szucs & Sandra Hargreaves Luebking,
editors. Salt Lake City: Ancestry. 1997. ISBN 0-916489-67-1.
Greenwood, Val D. Chapter 14 "What About
Wills" and Chapter 15 - "The Intestate - Miscellaneous Probate
Records - Guardianships." The Researcher's Guide to
American Genealogy. 2nd edition. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing
Herber, Mark D. Chapter 12 "Wills &
Administrations" Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British
Genealogy and Family History. US Publisher: Baltimore: Genealogical
Publishing Company. 1998.
Leary, Helen F. North Carolina Research.
Second edition. North Carolina Genealogical Society: 1996. ISBN
0-936370-10-6. See also my book review of same: http://members.aol.com/dearmyrtle/99/990209.htm
Schaefer, Christina K. The Hidden Half of the
Family: A Sourcebook for Women's Genealogy. Baltimore: Genealogical
Publishing Company. 1999. ISBN 0-8063-1582-2. Note that each
state's evolution of laws regarding property & inheritance are