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Probate records are court records created after an individual’s death that relate to a court’s decisions regarding the distribution of the estate to the heirs or creditors and the care of any dependents. You may find the names of married daughters or other relatives and their residences; or information about the adoption or guardianship of minor children and dependents. Probate records do not always give an exact date of death, but the death usually occurred within four months of probate. These documents are important to family history researchers, because they usually exist for time periods before civil birth and death records were kept.
Probate records may include: petitions, wills, bonds, inventories, publications, accounts, divisions,claims, letters of administration, probate journals, probate packets,
Other documents may include: adoption, deed, guardianship, legitimation of children, manumissions, apprenticeships, dower rights and releases, deeds, tax leins, land sold for back taxes, widow allowances, order of distribution, decree of heirship
Estates were probated by the Secretary of the Province until 1671 and by the Prerogative Court from 1671 to 1776. Beginning in the 1690s, probates could also have been handled by county courts. Since 1777, probate records have been kept by each county's orphans court and register of wills. The counties also have copies of the pre-1777 records of the Prerogative Court. In addition, during the colonial period, dozens of Maryland wills were proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in London, England.
A card index kept at the Maryland State Archives, to Maryland probate records, is available online:
Proved in Maryland
The Maryland State Archives and each county register of wills have probate records that begin as early as 1634. The archives has microfilm copies of the county records to the present. These can be borrowed through interlibrary loan (see Papenfuse's inventory in Maryland Archives and Libraries). The Archives also has a card index of probate records from 1634 to 1854.
The Family History Library has various records from the counties, including wills and inventories for approximately 1777 to 1850. The library also has microfilm copies of Prerogative Court records, including:
- Will books, 1635 to 1777 FHL 12841-FHL 12858
- Testamentary proceedings, 1657 to 1777 FHL 12930-FHL 12940
- Accounts of estates, 1718 to 1777 FHL 12899-FHL 12917
- Inventories and accounts of estates, 1674 to 1718 FHL 12918-FHL 12928
- Inventories of estates, 1718 to 1777 FHL 12862-FHL 12897.
- Balance books of estates after payment to heirs, 1751 to 1776 FHL 1286
The following can help you locate colonial wills:
- Cotton, Jane Baldwin, and Roberta B. Henry. The Maryland Calendar of Wills. 1904-28. 16 Volumes. Reprint. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1968. FHL 975.2 P28c 1968; vols. 1-8 on film FHL 873762-FHL 873764; vols. 1-8 on fiche FHL 6046924. These publications contain abstracts of wills 1635 to 1777.
Online Digital Versions of The Maryland Calendar of Wills 1635-1777, 8 Volumes
|1||1635-1685||Ancestry ($); Google Books; USGenNet; World Vital Records ($)|
|2||1685-1702||Ancestry ($); Google Books; Internet Archive; USGenNet (partial); World Vital Records ($)|
|3||1703-1713||Ancestry ($); World Vital Records ($)|
|4||1713-1720||Ancestry ($); World Vital Records ($)|
|5||1720-1726||Ancestry ($); World Vital Records ($)|
|6||1726-1732||Ancestry ($); Google Books; Internet Archive; World Vital Records ($)|
|7||1732-1738||Ancestry ($); World Vital Records ($)|
|8||1738-1743||Ancestry ($); World Vital Records ($)|
- Hume, Joan. Maryland, Index to the Wills of . . . Four Volumes. Baltimore, Maryland: Carta Book Company, 1970. These volumes cover seven counties and index the names of persons leaving a will. The indexes generally extend to 1960 (Family History Library various call numbers: do an author search to locate.)
- Index to Inventories of Estates, 1718-1777. Annapolis, Maryland: Hall of Records Commission, 1947. FHL 12898
- Magruder, James M., Jr. Index of Maryland Colonial Wills, 1635-1777. 1933. Reprint, Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing, 1967. FHL 975.2 P22m 1967 This is a name index of early wills. The 1933 edition is available in book FHL 975.2 S2m, 3 volumes and on microfilm FHL 1425640 Items 1-3. This indexes the Maryland colonial wills that are contained in the Prerogative Court records (see listing above).
- Magruder, James M., Jr. Maryland Colonial Abstracts, Wills, Accounts and Inventories. Five Volumes. 1934-35. Reprint in 1 Volume, Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1968. FHL 975.2 S2mj and FHL 975.2 S2mj 1968 (The later is one bound book of all five volumes.) This has abstracts for the years 1772 to 1777.
Before 1777 all probate records were filed with the Prerogative Court. Four types of probate records that are abstracted for this time period are:
- Skinner, Vernon L., Jr. Abstracts of the Balance Books of the Prerogative Court of Maryland, 1751-1777. Four Volumes (Vol. 1 is under the title Maryland Balance Book), Westminster, Maryland: Family Line Publications. 1995. FHL 975.2 P28m These books show the distribution of an estate to heirs after payments had been made. These books only existed for 1751 through 1777.
- Skinner, Vernon L., Jr. Abstracts of the Inventories and Accounts of the Prerogative Court of Maryland, 1674-1678, 1699-1718. 11 Volumes. Ongoing. Westminster, Maryland: Family Line Publications, 1992. FHL 975.2 P28sa
- Skinner, Vernon L., Jr. Abstracts of the Inventories of the Prerogative Court of Maryland, 1718-1777. 17 Volumes. Westminster, Maryland: Family Line Publications, 1981-1988. FHL 975.2 P28s
- Skinner, Vernon L., Jr. Abstracts of the Administration Accounts of the Prerogative Court . . .11 Volumes. Westminster, Maryland: Family Line, 1995. FHL 975.2 P28sk These cover 1718 to 1777.
- Skinner, Vernon L., Jr. Abstracts of the Testamentary Proceedings of the Prerogative Court of Maryland. 10 vols. Baltimore, Md. Genealogical Publishing for the Clearfield Co., 2004-2007. FHL 975.2 P28sat These books cover the years 1658-1707.
Noted Maryland genealogist George Ely Russell wrote an interesting article about prejudices detected in colonial Maryland wills:
- Russell, George Ely. "Pride and Prejudice: Conditional Bequests in Colonial Wills," The American Genealogist, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Jan. 1969):18-21. FHL 973 D25aga v. 45
Proved in London
Maryland wills and administrations proved in London have been abstracted and published multiple times. Each edition is listed here, as some are available online, while others are not. In addition, publishers included more detailed abstracts in some editions than others. The 2007 edition includes a place-name index that enables users to pluck out Maryland references:
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. English Estates of American Colonists: American Wills and Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610-1699. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1980. Digital version at Ancestry ($).
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. English Estates of American Colonists: American Wills and Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1700-1799. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1980. Digital version of 1991 reprint available at Ancestry ($).
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. English Estates of American Colonists: American Wills and Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1800-1858. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1981. Digital version at Ancestry ($).
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. American Wills & Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610-1857. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1989. FHL 942 P27c; digital version at Ancestry ($).
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. American Wills Proved in London, 1611-1775. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992. FHL 973 P27ca; digital version at Ancestry ($).
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. North American Wills Registered in London, 1611-1857. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007. FHL 942 P27c 2007
If you find a will abstact that interests you in Coldham's books, it is now possible to view digital images of the original Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills online at two United Kingdom pay-per-view websites:
- Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills (1384-1858), courtesy: The National Archives, UK.
- PCC Wills Index and Images (1384-1858), courtesy: The Genealogist. (in progress)
- "Probate Records," Maryland State Archives - Guide to Government Records, available online.
Understanding the Maryland probate laws and how they changed over time can help us learn how the estate was administered, taxed, and distributed and might help to solve difficult genealogical problems.
Additional information about Maryland state statutes relating to probate matters can be found at law libraries. For example:
Online digital versions of state statutes can often be found by conducting a search engine search for the term, "Maryland statutes." The following are examples of free, digital books related to Maryland probate laws:
- Maryland State Archives
- FamilySearch: Record Search for Cecil County Probate Estate Files from 1851 to 1940 are searchable.This free site will let you view and save.
- Anne Roach, Courthouse Records Overview (35 minute online video) FamilySearch Research Classes Online, 2010.
- Rose, Christine.Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures. San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2004. Of particular interest are the chapters, "Estates Galore," "Estate Documents," "Milking Every Clue from Estates," and "Strategies that Work." FHL Collection
- Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, editors. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Third edition. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc., 2006. Of particular interest is the section, "Probate," pages 268 - 277. FHL Collection
- Eichholz, Alice, Editor. Redbook: American State, County, and Town Sources. Third Edition. Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2004, 185. FHL Collection
- Greenwood, Val D. Third edition. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. 2000, 346. FHL Collection
- ↑ Michael Neill, "RootDig.com: Maryland Calendar of Wills on World Vital Records," 28 January 2008.
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