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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 8/2/2000

Where Did the Money Go?

Wills are an excellent genealogical source. They can name relatives of the deceased and provide information on relationships. They can even tell you whom your ancestor did not like. That's the upside. There is a downside. Old wills can be vague, unspecific, and downright confusing. Relationships may not be crystal clear to the modern reader. Phrases or clauses may be reasonably interpreted in more than one way.

Such situations are frustrating for the genealogist. Sometimes additional probate records beyond the will may shed light on the problem. It is important to remember that estate records may contain more papers than just the original will or a transcription of that document, and other probate records may clarify what is not clear in the will. While there are many records that may be included in the probate other than the will, this article will focus on records of disbursements and financial accountings. Tracking the flow of money (when possible) may assist you in documenting relationships that are not spelled out elsewhere.

John de Moss of Harford County, Maryland
This will from the early 1800s contained a phrase that caused some difficulty.

" . . . I devise and bequeath unto my sons and daughters and son William Demoss children, Thomas Demoss, John Demoss, Aquila Demoss, Christiana Rampley, Catherine Beatty, Eleanor Guyton, Jamima Meads, Susannah Meads, Mary Hughes and Ruth Demoss and William Demoss Children after the legacy left my grandson John Demoss . . . "

There were two schools of thought on the will. One was that the individuals listed after the phrase "William Demoss children" were William's children. The other school of thought was that William's children were not listed by name and that the individuals listed after the phrase "William Demoss children" were William's siblings and consequently children of John.

Some readers may think there really is no ambiguity—perhaps there is not. However, whenever there is any doubt or potential confusion, other records should be accessed. They may prove your point, disprove your point, or add completely new information to the family line.

Several accountings contained in the estate papers of John Demoss clarify the issue.

For example, one disbursement, dated May of 1836, sets forth the following: $346.26 is distributed to the heirs of John Demoss. Thomas Demoss, Christianna Rampley, Catherine Beatty, Jamima [sic] Meads, John Demoss, Aquila Demoss, Mary Hughes, Ruth Tredway, Eleanor Guyton, and Susanna Meads all receive $31.48. All are listed as “one of the children of the decd.” Another $31.48 is disbursed to “the Heirs of William Demoss . . . their distributive share." This seems to make the relationships fairly clear.

But if that was not enough, there was another partial disbursement of $645.07, wherein the children of John Demoss were all given $58.64 1/4 and the heirs of William Demoss were listed by name as grandchildren of the deceased and each given $9.77 2/6.

These documents provided married names for John's daughters and several of his grandchildren. The estate was still being settled some sixteen years after his death. Also, several heirs who were unmarried when the will was written were married by the date of the final settlement.

One may wonder why a will is not clear in terms of stating relationships. The people living at the time the document was written frequently knew what the individual intended. In the John Demoss will, contemporaries familiar with the family knew that Christianna Rampley and the others listed were John's children and not William's. The individual who drew up the will probably felt there was no need to clarify further; after all, that would likely require another sheet of rather expensive paper.

Maybe the Will Really Was Confusing
My 3rd great-grandmother Barbara Haase, in her early-1900s will, listed a Katherine Trautvetter as an heir. I had never heard of a Katherine Trautvetter. Barbara's deceased daughter had married a Trautvetter, but no one in the family had ever had that first name. The other Trautvetters listed in the will were known to be Barbara's grandchildren, including my great-grandfather.

A quick scan of the estate records located an initial report of the executor that indicated Katherine could not be found. So after this scan, I decided Katherine was simply a mistake on the part of the person who drew up the will.

But "Katherine" was left $250—not a sum to sneeze at—when Barbara died in 1903. So I went back and read ALL the estate papers from Barbara's estate. In the final accounting from the administrator, along with all the monies received and spent, was a note explaining that Katherine Trautvetter had been determined to be one of Barbara's grandchildren whose middle name was Katherine. This individual never used her middle name, and no one in the family even knew she had it. In the end, I located "Katherine," discovering the clue simply by reading the final accounting of the estate. Since it was the name Barbara used for this granddaughter, I have often wondered if it had some special significance to Barbara.

Ideally, the researcher would read all the estate papers for possible clues and leads, but time does not always allow for this. Accountings and records of disbursements should be searched as a part of comprehensive probate research. These additional records may clarify phrases that were unclear in the original will or may provide other new information.

Where Are These Accountings?
These accountings may be filed with the will and other loose papers in an estate. Never obtain just the will; always determine if there are loose papers that are a part of the estate records. It is possible that the court that oversaw the probate also maintained journals and/or loose paper files. These journals (containing a handwritten account of the court's activity) may provide additional financial information that is not in the packet of papers. In one estate I researched from the 1870s, the probate packet only contained receipts from the relatives who received money. An entry in the probate journal listed the individuals and their relationship to the deceased—an excellent find.

In the final analysis, tracking your own income and expenses may not be fun, but your ancestor's final set of debits and credits may "credit" your files with new information.

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 Magazine and Genealogical Computing.

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Used by the author on his website with permission

Michael John Neill's articles from the Ancestry Daily News