The passing of a loved one is a trying time in any family, but in later generations, the death of that ancestor can provide
a wealth of valuable information to the family historian.
34kbps(56k modem) |
Ancestors experts Curt Witcher and Leslie Smith Collier discuss the significant
information that can come from death records.
When a person dies, a series of events take place which create a number of documents. These can include a
death certificate, a
cemetery record, a
church burial record, a funeral home record, or an
obituary or death notice, but one of the most prized from
a genealogical perspective is probate records.
Probate records, which have been recorded in America since the first permanent settlement, are the documents
generated in the course of settling an estate.
Probate records exist in places and for time periods when few other records are available. Estates were probated
for about 25 percent of the heads of households in the U.S. before 1900, whether or not a person left a
will specifying how to divide their estate. Since wills often
list the names of family members, much of the population either left a will or was mentioned in one.
Among the documents that are frequently found in a probate packet,
you may find the deceased's death date and death place, names of family members, family relationships, residences, a
description of the deceased's estate, localities where the deceased owned property, and adoptions or guardianships for
minor children, dependents, or incompetent adults. The will, if there is one, will often also provide insight into the
deceased and his or her opinion of individual family members. Keep in mind, however, that each probate packet will vary
in content depending on when and where it was filed.
Probate records have yet another advantage in that they will often propel your ancestral search forward by leading
you to land records. In many ways, probate
and land records go hand in hand because land is often a central issue in probating a will. While land records don't
generally include fundamental genealogical information such as birth or death dates, they will help locate or position a
person or family in a time and place in history. They may also provide other clues such as proof of heirship or the maiden
name of a woman when she and her husband inherited land from her father.
34kbps(56k modem) |
Ancestors expert Leslie Smith Collier discusses some of the things you can find
in land records.
Between the 17th and 19th centuries in America, a significant percentage of males who lived to maturity can be
found in land records, so land records are a valuable resource for those having ancestors in the U.S. at that time. In
fact, the further back in time one goes, the more valuable land records become because they frequently predate the
existence of other record types.
How to Find Probate Records
34kbps(56k modem) |
Ancestors host Scott Wilkinson and expert Irene Johnson tell where to find
Probate records are usually housed in the county courthouse that presided over the area where your ancestor died.
To locate the right courthouse, you need to contact the clerk's office of the court where the person resided at
the time of death. Go to the County Courthouse episode extra to learn more about using county
Finding the courthouse is usually quite straightforward, but finding someone who has the time to search the records
may be more difficult. Not all courthouses have the time or resources to respond to genealogical requests. In such
cases, you may want to visit the courthouse yourself, hire a local professional who has a good relationship with the
courthouse to do the research for you, or contact a local genealogical society to see if they can secure the record you're
seeking for a small fee or donation. Generally, you will want to request a search of any indexes and a copy of the actual
Of course, it's always worth searching probate records online, and
particularly through the Family History Library Catalog
under locality records to see if perhaps the information you're seeking can be found in a
compiled source. Some of these sources,
such as a local genealogical society or the FHL Catalog, may at least have some indexes to probates or wills in the time
and place of your interest. This will save you or your selected researcher time and effort in locating the original
probate packet. It's also possible that with the actual case file number and date, an employee of the county courthouse
will be more willing to fill your request.
When searching for the probate packet, keep in mind that the probate process can take years and the records may
have been created at different times and in different offices of the court. Fortunately, these have usually been
gathered into one probate packet, but it is useful to remember that the final settlement of the estate may not occur for
some time after the date of death.
Also when looking for an ancestor's probate records, it is important to check for probate records in each locality
where the person owned property. For example, if James Butler owned land on both sides of the Kentucky-Tennessee
border when he died in the 1840s, two counties, each in a different state, might have probate files on him.