Using Probate Records

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I’ve been researching my 3rd-great-grandfather for quite a while.  His probate records are the most information I’ve been able to find about him, but he is the end of the trail.  I’m a big fan of looking at records again, and probate records proved no different.  So first, the basics:

What are probate records?

Probate records are created when someone dies without a will.  It is known as dying “intestate.”  Those who had will records died “testate.”

Why are probate records useful?

Death records often weren’t recorded until the early 20th century.  Probate records often exist even  when few other records are available.  In probate records, you can find the deceased death location and date, names and relationships of family members, personal property, and adoptions/guardianships for minor children.

Probate records often will lead you to land records since land is a central issue in settling an estate.  Land records can provide other clues, such as the maiden name, if she and her husband inherited land from her father.

The property and the money of the estate are then distributed (after a period of months or even years after the death.)  Also, the administrator must report to the court his actions as administrator.

What are the pieces of a probate record, and what does each piece contain?

After a person with any size of estate dies, an interested party petitions the court to probate the estate.  This person could be a friend, the surviving spouse, another relative, a creditor, or public official.  These petitions are filed with the other loose papers relating to the probate and are referred to as the “probate packet” or “probate files.”  Some of these probate records have been destroyed or moved to state archives, but most are at the county courthouse.  (Of course, this piece of information sent me to check again the probate records that were available.  And sadly, no probate packet was to be found.)

After the court accepts the petition, the administrator is generally required to be bonded. In one of my probate records, a neighbor of my ancestor (I haven’t been able to work out a family connection yet) petitions the Court to appoint him Guardian over the minor children, heirs of the estate because they don’t have “any relatives able or competent to care for them.”  He entered into a bond of $600.  Entering into a bond insures the estate against any harm done by the administrator (e.g., he runs off with money/property from the estate.)

The Administrator then takes Inventory of the personal property of the deceased.  There’s not much genealogy info found here, but it will give you an idea of your ancestor’s financial status.  When sales are made, the names of the buyers should be closely considered, as they may be family members.

When there are minors, be sure to search guardianship records.  The court usually appoints a guardian for minors under age 14, but minors over 14 are sometimes allowed to choose their own guardian.  This was the case in the probate record of my 3rd-great grandfather.  His younger four children had a different guardian from his oldest son.  From the record “[he] selects and asks the court to appoint…”  Because he chose his guardian, I wonder what relationship exists between his guardian and the deceased.  Something to research further!

Where can I find probate records?

First, determine the county where your ancestor died, and then see what is available.  Once you know what is available, has at least one researcher who works in every state archive who are available for your research requests.  Submit a research request.

Introduce yourself to probate records if you haven’t yet.  They might help break down some brick walls.  And if you’ve already looked into probate records, make sure you have all the parts and have followed all the clues they have to offer.  Happy searching!


Hornbeck, Shirley. This and That Genealogy Tips on Probate Records and Wills.

Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems. Probate Records with Genealogy Expert Jana Broglin,

Ryskamp, George. With or Without a Will, Probate Research Can Be Profitable. 45th BYU Annual Family History and Genealogy Conference, 2013.

Ancestors. “Probate Records.” BYU Broadcasting.

by Lindsay Moore© 2013,, All rights reserved

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January 3, 2014
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