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Probate encompasses all matters and proceedings pertaining to the administration of estates, whether there is a will (testate) or not (intestate). Various types of records are created throughout the probate process. These may include, wills, bonds, petitions, accounts, inventories, administrations, orders, decrees, and distributions. These documents are extremely valuable to genealogists and should not be neglected. In many instances, they are the only known source of relevant information such as the decedent’s date of death, names of his or her spouse, children, parents, siblings, in-laws, neighbors, associates, relatives, and their places of residence. They may also include information about adoption or guardianship of minor children and dependents. Probate records may not give an exact death date, but the death most often occurred within a few months of the date of probate. Wills usually mention the names of heirs and frequently specify how those heirs are related. Names of children are given, as well as married names of daughters.
While probate records are one of the most accurate sources of genealogical evidence, they have limitations.
Variations existed within counties as probate jurisdictions and county boundaries changed over the years.
Territorial (1787 - 1818)
County Probate Judge and Clerk (1787 - 1795)
Orphans Court composed of Justices of Quarter Sessions (1795 - 1805)
Court of Common Pleas (1805 - 1816)
Clerk of County Court (1816 - 1819)
State (1818 - present)
Clerk of County Court (1816 - 1819)
Clerk of County's Commissioners' Court (1819 - 1821)
County Probate Court (1821 - 1848)
County Probate Court (for counties with 50,000+ population) (1870 - 1964)
County Court (1848 - 1964)
Circuit Court (1964 - present)
Understanding the Illinois 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 Illinois state statutes relating to probate matters can be found at law libraries. For example:
- Pease, Theodore Calvin. The Laws of the Northwest Territory, 1788-1800. Springfield, Illinois: Trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library, . FHL Title
Online digital versions of state statutes can often be found by conducting a search engine search for the term, "Illinois statutes." The following are examples of free, digital books related to Illinois probate laws:
- Brayman, Mason. Revised Statutes of the State of Illinois....Springfield: Walters & Weber, 1845. View at Google Books using the search term "probate" for references specific to probate.
- Hurd, Harvey Bostwick, editor. Revised Statutes of the State of Illinois. 1877....Chicago: Chicago Legal News Co., 1877. View at Google Books using the search term "probate" for references specific to probate.
- Jones, William C. A Practical Treatise upon the Jurisdiction of...Probate Courts of Illinois....Chicago: T.H. Flood & Co., 1892. View at Internet Archive.
- North, Levi. A Treatise on the Practice in Probate Courts...in the State of Illinois....Chicago: Callaghan & Co., 1875. View at Internet Archive.
- Simons, Franklin Pierce. A Treatise on the Probate Practice and Law of Estates in the State of Illinois....Chicago: Callaghan & Co., 1907. View at Internet Archive.
- Starr, Merritt and Russell H. Curtis, editors. Annotated Statutes of the State of Illinois in Force January 1, 1885 ....Volume I. Chicago: Callaghan & Co., 1885. View at Google Books using the search term "probate" for references specific to probate.
- The Illinois Regional Archives Depositories includes some online Illinois probate indexes.
- FamilySearch Historical Records collection includes free online images of will books, administrations, journals, inventories, guardian's records, and order books from probate courts in Illinois. The collection includes the following counties: Alexander, Coles, Effingham, Gallatin, Hamilton, Hancock, La Salle, Logan, Madison, Massac, Piatt, Pope, Rock Island, Shelby, White, Whiteside, and Williamson. The content and time period will vary by county.
- The Family History Library has microfilmed many Illinois probate records, generally from the date of the county’s creation until the early 1900s. Probate records can be found in the Family History Library Catalog by using a Place Search.
- DeathIndexes.com provides links to several Illinois probate records.
- USGenWeb, Illinois A cooperative volunteer effort with links to resources in the state and counties.
- Anne Roach, Courthouse Records Overview (35 minute online video) FamilySearch Research Classes Online, 2010.
- Eichholz, Alice, Editor. Redbook: American State, County, and Town Sources. Third Edition. Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2004. (See page 185.)
- North, Levi. A Treatise on the Practice in Probate Courts in the Probate of Wills and Settlement of Estates...Illinois.... Chicago: Callaghan & Company, 1875. Available free online.
- Rose, Christine.Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures. San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2004.
- Eichholz, Alice, Editor. Redbook: American State, County, and Town Sources. Third Edition. Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2004. There is a Probate Records section under each state's listings.
- Greenwood, Val D. Third edition. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. 2000. Of particular interest are the chapters, "Understanding Probate Records and Basic Legal Terminology," "What About Wills?" and "The Intestate—Miscellaneous Probate Records—Guardianships."
- Pease, Theodore Calvin. "The County Archives of the State of Illinois." Clarence Walworth Alvord, editor. Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library. Volume XII. Springfield, Ill.: Trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library, 1915. Chap. IV, pp. lxxviii-lxxxi. View a free digital version online at Google Books.
- 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."
- 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.
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