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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill -- 4/6/2005


A $31.44 Inheritance

Probate papers of ancestors are a record utilized by most genealogists. The records of how an ancestor's property was allocated after their death can provide a significant amount of family information, particularly in terms of relationships, married names for women, family financial status, and residences of heirs. These records should not only be accessed for direct line ancestors. Estate settlements of other extended family members may also provide significant clues.

The 1950s estate settlement of Anna Haase is a case in point. Miss Haase died in 1955 leaving no descendants and enough money to cause her estate to go through the process of probate. Anna was the youngest of 6 children, nearly twenty years younger than her older sister, and had survived all her siblings and several of her nieces and nephews. The estate record listed over fifty of Anna's heirs. My own grandmother even received a whopping $31.44 from the estate.

Readers unfamiliar with probate records may wish to refer to two earlier "Beyond the Index" Columns:

Whose Records Do I Look For?
The estate settlements most likely to contain extended lists of relatives are those for individuals that generally fall into the following category:

  • Individuals who left no descendants of their own.
  • Individuals who did not leave a will completely disposing of their property.
  • Individuals who had enough of an estate to warrant a settlement.

The record discussed in this column was for a sister of my great-great-grandmother. The estate records of ancestral cousins are also worth considering if they fall into the same categories as listed previously. My same Grandmother also received two small inheritances from first cousins who not only left no descendants but were also only children. Estates of this kind are particularly valuable as the heirs typically begin with the first cousins of the deceased and may extend even further depending upon the family structure. You may be surprised at what relatives come out of the woodwork.

How to Find These Records?
The kinds of estate records discussed in this article are usually recorded at the county level in most states in the United States. Researchers wanting to learn more about estate records in their particular state of interest can consult either Ancestry's Red Book or the appropriate state research guide at the Family Search website (www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/RG/frameset_rhelps.asp). Learn about the records in your area of interest before blindly attempting to locate them. Records of the type discussed in this column are usually filed as probate, estate, or inheritance records in a court records office at the county or town level.

Why $31.44?
Just how did Grandma get $31.44 of Anna's estate? The estate's funds were distributed per stirpes, where basically each heir inherits a portion of the estate that is dependent upon the relative sizes of the families involved.

Grandma and her siblings each received 1/210th of the estate of Anna Haase. While the portion is small, the calculation is not as complicated as it may sound.

Grandma's share of the Anna Haase estate was determined in the following manner:

  • Anna Haase had no children, but had five siblings that left descendants:
    Frances Trautvetter
    Louise Meyers
    Conrad Haase
    Herman Haase
    Lena Baker
  • Each of these siblings died before Anna's death in 1955. Our discussion continues with Frances Trautvetter. Seven of Frances' children were either living at the time of Anna's death or had descendants living when Anna died. The portion of Anna's estate that went to Frances' heirs was split seven ways. One of these seven portions went to Frances's son George.
  • George Trautvetter also died before Anna Haase and at the time of Anna's death George had six children who were either living or who had left the own descendants. Each of these children of George would receive one-sixth of George's share. In summary:
  • Anna's estate was split five ways, one share went to France's heirs.
  • Frances' portion was split seven ways, one share went to George's heirs. George's portion was split six ways, one share went to daughter Ida.
  • Each of George's children received 1/210 of the estate. This is determined by multiplying the number of splits from Anna to Ida (five times seven times six). That 210 th is certainly a little wedge of the pie.

Are Some People Left Out?
As I read through the list of names, the ones in my grandmother's branch of the family were familiar to me, but there were some family names that were omitted from the estate records. There are two main reasons why some family members of the family may not be listed.

The settlement of the estate only requires that the heirs be determined at the time the estate is settled. It is not necessary to document every descendant or relative who ever lived or even every family member who was living at the time the estate was settled.

In our example case, Anna's sister Frances Trautvetter had own daughter who died as a toddler in the 1880s. Since Frances' daughter left no heirs of her own, this daughter is not mentioned in the estate records. George Trautvetter's son who died in his mid-30s is not mentioned either. While he died at the age of 36, he left no children or spouse upon his death. In some cases these individuals may be mentioned in an estate for completeness, but there usually is no reason that these individuals have to be listed. Children who died as infants will likely not be mentioned at all. Remember, the court is concerned with establishing a list of heirs, not a list of every relative who ever lived.

Some Additional Warnings
The order finding heirship (where the heirs are proven and listed) indicates that Anna Haase had five siblings who predeceased her. This is correct. She did have five siblings. What the record does not mention is that Anna and her siblings did not have the same father. The two oldest siblings, Frances and Louise, were children of their mother's first marriage. Anna Haase and the remaining siblings were from a subsequent marriage of the mother. The inheritance law in effect in Illinois at this time made no distinction between full and half siblings, so this relationship distinction is not noted in the estate records for Anna Haase. Of course having different fathers is significant for the genealogist.

Care must be taken with other heirs as well. In a deceased heir left descendants, that group of heirs should be listed in the records. It may not be noted in the records that that particular group of heirs shared only one parent.

Look through your family information. Is there a relative who died without descendants? If so, the answers to some of your genealogical questions may be lurking in their probate file.


Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) www.fgs.org. He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at mjnrootdig@myfamily.com or visit his website at www.rootdig.com, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005, MyFamily.com.

Used by the author on his website with permission
Michael John Neill's other genealogy articles