from the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 10/23/2002

Probate - An Introduction

Among the most important genealogical records are the records of probate—the process of settling an estate after someone's death. Since these records frequently involve property and relationships they are especially helpful to the genealogist. This week, we will provide an overview of these records. In the United States, the probate process is governed by state statute. Consequently, laws and practices will differ from state to state and from one time period to another. Today there are more similarities than differences. However, that was not the case in 1750.

We'll start with a slightly more recent example.

Hinrich and Trientje
I thought I had fairly well documented the lives of one ancestral couple: Hinrich Sartorius and Trientje Behrens. From their marriage in Quincy, Illinois in the 1860s until their death in the early 1900s, the details of their lives are fairly well known. Death records, census records, obituaries, church records, tombstones, vital records, and family information gave me what I thought was a fairly complete picture of their lives. I had never taken the time to obtain their probate information. While searching such records is a part of any comprehensive research plan, I had not obtained the estate records for this couple. Their children's names were fairly well documented from a variety of sources. What time I did spend on this family was devoted to trying to locate Hinrich's Ostfriesen origins.

Then, a very kind relative sent me information from their probate, and I learned new details.

What Did I Learn?
The pages from Hinrich's Adams County, Illinois, probate in 1916 provided the names and addresses of all his heirs at the time the estate was settled. Relationships were not specifically stated in the document, nor was it possible to infer anything other than that the individuals named were related to Hinrich. What was news to me was the fact that Hinrich owned several hundred acres of property in southern Minnesota in addition to his Adams County, Illinois, farm. I knew one of Hinrich's sons had settled in Minnesota but was not aware that Hinrich had made the initial purchase of property there. Trientje's will of December 1920 unfortunately is not as informative.

Probate A Part Of Every Research Problem
Probate research should be a part of every good research design, even when it seems that such information will not serve your current research goals. Wills or other records of the settlement of an estate can provide excellent genealogical clues and information on surviving family members. It can also provide an idea of your ancestor's financial standing at the time of his death and perhaps a clue as to his occupation if other records do not reveal that information. It is important to remember not to judge your ancestor entirely on his probate file. After all, few of us would want to be judged solely upon the value of our estate at our own death.

Where To Obtain These Records?
Estate and probate records were (and still are) generally created at the local level (typically the county). In more urban settings, a separate court may handle probate matters. In rural areas, probate duties frequently are just one part of the court's regular work. The place to begin your search for probate records is usually with the county courthouse (see references at the end of this article). We'll briefly discuss the records first.

The Records Themselves
Generally probate records are contained in packets of loose papers that contain the original documents (will, receipts, inventories, and other paper generated during the probate process) or in bound volumes that contain transcriptions of these records and various orders by the judge or the court. Your ancestor might not have had a valid will upon his demise. Two terms that make all the difference are:

Testate—for those that left a valid will.
Intestate—for those that did not leave a valid will.

Packets Or Books?
In general, the earlier the time period, the more likely one is to find the bound volumes of orders, wills, etc. and not the original papers. In some jurisdictions, all the probate matters may be in one series of court books and the probate records may be intermingled with records of other county courts and with other court actions. In some areas, there may be a separate series of books for copies of the will, inventories of the estate, executor bonds, and so on. These bound volumes may be in addition to any packets containing loose papers. One should take care to determine what records are available. The references at the end of this column will provide an initial point of reference. The only generalization about probate records that I can almost make safely is that your ancestor should only have a probate file if he is dead. And I've even seen cases where estate cases were filed and the "deceased" was still alive. It pays to learn about the specific records in the locality where your family lived.

Usually, the material in the order books was transcribed as the information was obtained (e.g. as the inventory was conducted, as some property was sold, etc.) and as the various orders of the court were carried out. The packet of loose papers though, may have not been actually filed (and indexed) until the estate was completely settled ("closed"). If the index entry is made at this time, it might appear in the index several years or even decades after the estate was opened. For this reason it pays to search a probate index for several years after the individual's death. I always look as far as twenty years after the person's death. If I do not find a probate, then I search other court actions to see if there was some action involving the estate that took place in a court other than the one of probate.

Searching The Records
There will not be a complete index to every name mentioned in every document in a probate record. Indexes generally are available to the names of those whose estates are being settled. For this reason, it is a good idea to view those estate records of relatives and friends or neighbors of your ancestor for potential additional information.

Still Stuck?
Consult the references cited at the end of this article, or post a question on the specific county message board at RootsWeb ( Those familiar with the records for your particularly jurisdiction of interest are most likely to know particular nuances in your area. And it seems like every area has its own nuances.

Where And When Do I Look?
The place to begin searching is the county where the person died and most likely owned property (unless they were only visiting the location where they passed away). If the person owned property in other jurisdictions try those areas as well, keeping mind that usually probate courts follow county lines. If a person owned property in more than one county or political jurisdiction, typically the estate will be administered in the area where the bulk of the property was located.

What Do I Need To Look At?
It is also necessary to have at least an approximate year or time span when the individual died. A death date may be obtained from a death certificate, a tombstone, etc. A death date may be partially inferred from an absence in a census record, a spouse remarrying, etc.

In an upcoming article, we will look at the probate process in more detail. Keep in mind that the records of how your ancestor's property was transferred to his heirs after his death are among the most valuable genealogical records available.

The following references will assist you in determining who created and maintains probate records in the area in which you are researching:

Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy , edited by Lou Szucs and Sandra Luebking.

This provides additional information on the probate process and a summary of records across the United States.

Ancestry's Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources, edited by Alice Eichholz

This reference provides specific information for each of the fifty United States.

Appropriate County USGENWEB Page
Browse to your state and county of choice.

State Archives Website.
Some state archives actually have early probate records for their states. In some cases, the state archives site contains information about the types of records available at the local level.

Family History Library Research Guides.
These state-specific reference guides provide information on the records available in each state. It is possible that the Family History Library has microfilmed records for the areas being researched. These guides are a wonderful reference for each state where you have ancestors.

County Addresses from the National Association of Counties (NACo)

Other Reading
"The Reality of Sarah's Realty," — from the Ancestry Daily News


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 the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2002, Inc.

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