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Notarial records [actes notariés or minutes de notaire] are records prepared by a notary [notaire or protonotaire or tabellion]. Notaries are important officials in France and other nations where a civil code based on Roman law is in force. Among other matters, notarial records deal with estates and inheritances. They are somewhat equivalent to probate records of the United States, but they include more document types.
Notarial records cover an early time period, sometimes earlier than church records and civil registration. They often provide a great deal of genealogical information about the people listed in them. However, they are very difficult to find and they are difficult to use unless they are indexed.
Notarial records were made in all areas of France and its colonies. Researchers sometimes use notarial records from as early as the 1300s.
Notaries are required to deposit records more than 125 years old in the departmental archives, but compliance with this rule is incomplete. Most French notarial records are not indexed. In order to use the records, it helps to know or guess who the notary was, where he lived, and when the document was created.
Many notarial records have been deposited in departmental archives in bundles or boxes arranged by the name of the notary and his town of residence. Most of them have to be searched systematically one by one. In some areas, there may be some indexes. Other notarial records may still be in the office of the notary's successor.
The records of each notary are usually arranged chronologically, so records of most value to the family historian are mixed with other written agreements, including conveyances of land and other property, bonds for the payment of money, and partnerships.
Notarial Record Types
In France the legal profession is divided into notaries [notaires] and lawyers [avocats]. Lawyers handle legal disputes, but notaries prepare acts and contracts and certify authentic copies of them. Some important notarial records are:
- Marriage contracts [contrats de mariage].
- Wills [testaments].
- Division of property among heirs [partages and successions].
- Household inventories taken after someone's death [inventaires des biens or inventaires après décès].
- Guardianship agreements [actes de tutelle] providing for the care of minor children at the death of one or both spouses.
In many of these documents, names and relationships of all family members and friends present at the drafting are given.
It is often necessary to start with a list of the notaries for the area where your relatives lived. A list of notaries and when and where they worked should be available at the departmental archives. Note the dates when each notary served. Search among the records of notaries in the area at the time your relatives lived there.
A family did not always go to the nearest notary. They may have used an old friend of the family or a notary their parents and grandparents used. Not every family needed a notary, but when they did they often stayed with him through several generations. You may find many documents together concerning the same family.
It may be difficult and costly to hire someone to search notarial documents on your behalf in France. You may be able to hire a professional genealogist listed in a French genealogical periodical or offer to exchange research with another reader of a genealogical periodical in order to have notarial records searched for you.
Also, members of French genealogical associations sometimes compile and sell indexes of notarial records, especially marriage contracts. To know if the notarial records of a locality have been indexed, find the list of indexed records [relevés] in the local French genealogical society periodical, or write to the society. They may ask you to become a member of their society before they sell you a copy of their indexes.
Notarial records can be useful to complete a family history. They are a good substitute for missing parish registers before 1792. But search for civil registers first and parish registers second. Then check archive inventories for notarial records.
The Family History Library has only a few French notarial records in its collection. They are listed in the Locality section of the Family History Library Catalog under—
FRANCE, [DEPARTMENT] - NOTARIAL RECORDS
FRANCE, [DEPARTMENT], [TOWN] - NOTARIAL RECORDS
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