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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 his estate to his heirs or creditors and the care of his dependents. You may find the individual's death date, the names of family members, family relationships, and residences. You may also learn about the adoption or guardianship of minor children and dependents. These documents are essential for research because they usually predate the birth and death records kept by civil authorities.
Not everyone left an estate that was probated by a court. Estates were probated for approximately 25 percent of the heads of households in the United States before 1900, whether or not the individual left a will.
While probate records are one of the most accurate sources of genealogical evidence, they must be used with some caution. For example, they may omit the names of deceased family members or those who have previously received an inheritance, or the spouse mentioned in a will may not be the parent of the children mentioned.
What You Are Looking For
The information you find varies from record to record. These records may include:
- Name of an ancestor.
- Date and place of death.
- Names of parents.
- Names of spouse and children.
- Lists of belongings, property, and so forth.
- Biographical information.
These 7 steps may help you find information in probate records.
Step 1. Determine the county where your ancestor lived.
Check the following to find the county where your ancestor lived:
- Family records (histories, pedigree charts, family group sheets, etc.).
- Published family histories.
For additional ways to find where your ancestor lived, see How to Locate Your Ancestor in the United States.
Step 2. Search for a county index for probate records in the Family History Library Catalog.
Since an index may be found with the record or separately, in the Family History Library Catalog, look for indexes under both:
- PROBATE RECORDS.
- PROBATE RECORDS - INDEXES.
For descriptions of records available through Family History Centers or the Family History Library, click on Family History Library Catalog in the window to the left:
- State records will be shown automatically.
- To find county records, click on the County tab, and select the county of your ancestor.
Printing the catalog entry is usually helpful.
If you do not find an index, you may want to look for your ancestor's name in the record itself during the approximate dates after your ancestor died. Skip to step 4.
If you do not find county probate records, see Tip 1.
Step 3. Search the index for your ancestor's name, and copy the information.
Find your ancestor's name in the index.
Copy everything about your ancestor from the index. This information is necessary for you to find him or her in the record.
If you cannot find your ancestor's name, check for variations of the spelling. For suggestions, see Name Variations.
Step 4. Find the probate records.
Find the catalog entries for the records. If the catalog entry you printed showed both the index and the records, you won't need to return to the catalog to find the film numbers for the appropriate records.
Obtain the book or film with the records.
For information on where to obtain copies of records, see Where to Find It.
Step 5. Search the record for information about your ancestor.
Using what you found in the index, find your ancestor in the record.
For a list of Internet sites with probate records or more information about these records, see Tip 2.
Step 6. Copy the information from the record.
Make a photocopy of the page(s) with the information about your ancestor. By copying the entire page(s), you can study the record in depth and save it for future reference. You can analyze the handwriting and note other details you may have missed when you first looked at the record. You may find other relatives of your ancestor.
Be sure to document the source of the information by writing the title, author, book or film number, and page number on the copy, or photocopy the title page at the front of the book or film. Also write the name of the library, archive, etc., where you found the probate records.
Step 7. Analyze the information you found.
Study the document. Compare the information to what you already knew about your ancestor.
- What does it tell you about your ancestor and about the people who were with him or her?
- Does the record give clues about your ancestor which could guide you to other records?
- Watch for dates, locations, relationships, etc.
Tip 1. What can I do if I cannot find county probate records for the area where my ancestor lived?
If you cannot find probate records, check:
- State records in the Family History Library Catalog. For records recommended for your ancestor's state, see the chart below. For Rhode Island there are town probate records. In Connecticut and Vermont there are districts which handled probates.
- Other types of records, such as church, land, etc., listed on the Search Strategy.
- Another place where your ancestor lived.
- PERSI, which is an index of magazines. Information which is too short for a book may be found in a magazine article. For information about PERSI, see Tip 3.
To see recommended probate records for your ancestor's state, search this Wiki for the state name and "Probate Records."
Tip 2. What Internet sites may help me?
Check the following general websites:
- CyndisList which has links to thousands of sites that contain genealogy information of all kinds
- Ancestry.com which has PERSI and has scanned many books and displays them at this site.
Tip 3. What is PERSI, and where can I find it?
PERSI is an index of about 5,000 historical and genealogical magazines. These magazines have articles with:
- Family histories.
- Abstracts of church, town, and other records.
- Histories of towns.
- Many other records and topics.
PERSI may be found at:
- Family History Centers on microfiche.
- The Family History Library on compact disc, microfiche, and book format.
- Many public and college libraries.
- Ancestry.com on the Internet. There is a fee.
Tip 4. How can I use interlibrary loan?
Many public and college libraries can borrow books from other libraries and archives. Only public and college libraries with microfilm readers can borrow microfilms.
- Go to your public or college library.
- Ask the librarian to check out a book or microfilm for you through interlibrary loan. You need to give the librarian the title of the book and the name of the author. For a microfilm, give the name and address of the archive that has the microfilm and their microfilm number. The librarian may be able to find this for you.
- The library staff will help you with their procedures. There may be a small fee.
Where To Find It
Family History Centers and the Family History Library
For information about contacting or visiting a Family History Center or the Family History Library, see Family History Library and Family History Centers: Library Services and Resources.
Family History Centers
Family History Centers can borrow microfilms from the Family History Library.
For the address and phone number of the center nearest you, see Family History Centers.
Family History Library
For descriptions of records available through the Family History Library, click on Family History Library Catalog in the window to the left:
- In the window to the left, click on Family History Library Catalog.
- State records will automatically appear.
- To find county records, click on the County tab, and choose a county.
- To find town or city records, click on the City tab, and choose a town or city.
Archives and Libraries
Records are available in many archives and libraries.
Some major archives and libraries in the United States are:
- The Newberry Library (Chicago, IL).
- The Library of Congress.
- The New England Historic Genealogical Society Library (Boston, MA).
- The National Archives.
- The Allen County Public Library (Ft. Wayne, IN).
Some college and larger public libraries have probate records, particularly for their own areas. Public libraries may be able to obtain the records through interlibrary loan. For information about interlibrary loan, see Tip 4.
You can find addresses and phone numbers for town, county, and college libraries in the American Library Directory. The American Library Directory is available at most public and college libraries.
Most state archives and university libraries have probate records, particularly for their own areas. The "Archives and Libraries" FamilySearch Wiki article of a state lists Internet and mailing addresses for several state archives, libraries, and historical societies. These organizations may have histories. Their Internet sites may list their records.
Genealogical and Historical Societies
Some records may be available at genealogical and historical societies.
You may find the names and addresses of societies in the following sources, which are available at many public and college libraries:
- The Genealogist's Address Book, by Elizabeth Petty Bentley.
- Directory of Genealogical and Historical Society Libraries, Archives and Collections in the US and Canada, by Dina C. Carson.
- Directory of Genealogical Societies in the U.S.A. and Canada, by Mary Meyer.
- Directory of Historical Organizations in the United States and Canada, edited by Mary Bray Wheeler.
- The Encyclopedia of Associations, published by Gale Research Co.
You can also check Internet sites such as this one for information about societies:
CyndisList, which has links to thousands of sites that contain genealogy information of all kinds.
Genealogical Search Services
Many genealogical search services will search probate records for a fee. These sources can help you find a genealogical search service:
CyndisList gives many companies and individuals who do research and lists publications that explain how to hire a professional genealogist.
Advertisements in major genealogical journals may help you find a researcher.
For more information, see Hiring a Professional Genealogist.