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Probate records are court records that describe the distribution of a person's estate after he dies. Information in the records may include the death date, names of heirs and guardians, relationships, residences, an inventory of the estate, and names of witnesses.
These records are very helpful for research because in many areas the authorities began recording probate actions before birth and death records.
Probate records were not created for every person who died. The probate law of 1683 stated that probate was necessary if a parent died and left children that were not of age (age 25). Often an estate was probated even if the children were of age.
Although probate records are one of the most accurate sources of genealogical information, the relationships noted in the records may not always have the same meaning today. For instance, a brother-in-law may be recorded as a brother, because legally that made no difference.
From the fourteenth century in Denmark, the foged (bailiff) was responsible for law enforcement in his bailiwick. Late in the sixteenth century the sorenskriver (scribe) in the bailiff's office was appointed to take care of probate cases and prepare the legal documents in connection with the probate. Later the title of sorenskriver took on the meaning of probate judge.
The Probate Process
Before 1683, probate records were often part of the general court records. The probate process began when the authorities were notified of a death. Thirty days after notification, the authorities held a registration of the estate at the home of the deceased. If the deceased was a parent, the surviving spouse and all children still living at home were to be present. All heirs not living in the parish were allowed a certain time to present themselves to the court. The time allowed was based on how far they had to travel. If a widow was pregnant when her husband died, she had the right to keep possession until after the child's birth. All guardians had to be present when the estate was divided.
The probate document was signed by all heirs or their guardians and by the probating authority.
No widower or widow could remarry before the estate had been settled in probate. However, a surviving spouse could receive permission from the court to live in an unprobated estate [uskiftet bo]. Under this provision, there could be no distribution of inheritance to the heirs unless the surviving spouse remarried, died, or requested a distribution.
All legal heirs who could not manage their own affairs were to have a guardian appointed in their behalf. The law stated that the child's closest relatives were to be appointed guardian, the father's relatives first, then the mother's. If no relatives were available, then the court appointed a guardian. A widow could choose her own guardian subject to the court's approval.
Records of guardianship may be kept separately from other probate papers, or a different court may have jurisdiction over guardianship.
To view records examples of skifteprotokollerne (administrations of estates) with translations click here.
The Availability of Probate Records
Before the 1683 law, probate was held only when there were problems in dividing an estate. After 1683 the probate records are separate from the other court records and handled by the probate judge.
Probate records for clergy, schoolteachers, and military officers were often kept separate from the regular probate jurisdiction. Church officials would conduct probate for a priest or a schoolteacher, and a commanding officer for a military officer.
The Family History Library has an excellent collection of probate records from many areas of Denmark. These are listed in the catalog under DENMARK, COUNTY, PARISH - PROBATE RECORDS. Most records have separate name indexes in either the beginning or the end of the record. Also check the catalog under DENMARK, [COUNTY], [HERRED] - PROBATE RECORDS.
Guardianship Records [Overformynderiprotokoller]
Guardianship records are a good supplement to the probate records. Their use is twofold. First, they replace missing probate records. Second, they provide information concerning a minor's later destiny.
The guardianship record usually has the following information:
- Name of the ward or minor.
- Sometimes age or birth date.
- Date on which the inheritance was paid to the court and the estate reference involved. (If the inheritance comes from one or several sources, each document is referred to with the amount.)
- Name of guardian and residence.
- Date on which the inheritance is paid to the ward or minor.
- Status of the ward at the time the inheritance is paid, indicating a place of residence if different from the original probate record.
Language of Probates
Like many other subjects, probates use certain words, phrases, and abbreviations. Unless these words are known, it can be difficult to decipher a probate record. Following is a list of common words, phrases, and abbreviations used in probate records.