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Norway Probate Records
Probate records were not created for every person that died. About 25% of the population had probates! Information in the records usually include:
In these records whole families may be recorded, and in many probates long lists of heirs such as brothers, sisters, nephews, and nieces are shown, depending on the condition of a probate.
Even though a probate record was not created for every person who died, the probate law of 1687 states that a probate was necessary if a parent died and left children that were under age. A child would have to be age 25 to be of age. An estate was often probated even if the children were of age.
While probate records are some 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 in probating the estate.
From the 14th century, the foged (bailiff) was responsible for law enforcement in his jurisdiction. Late in the 16th 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 probates. Later the title sorenskriver came to mean probate judge.
The probate record is a rich source of information about individuals and their place in society, especially after the 1650's, when this source is fairly abundant, and few other sources are available.
Even before the unification of Norway (872 AD) some districts had joined together in a laug or lag (law) that later became known as a ting (court), where one could come in order to settle disagreements, bring forth complaints, or hear the law.
The Probate Process
Probate records are among the most important genealogical sources of Norway, and the procedure for their jurisdiction had its beginning centuries ago. The country was divided into small districts. Several of these districts composed a lagdømme, a court where the law was expounded and disputes settled.
From these beginnings evolved fogderier (legal circuits), which today are known as domsogn or sorenskriveri (probate courts).
The administrative official in a len (county) in the earlier centuries was the lensherre. Later an amtmann (county governor) was appointed by the king. His local functionary was the fogd or foged (bailiff), and the fogderi was his official district. The fogd became the official who collected taxes and enforced the law (politi og oppebørselsmann).
In the later part of the 16th century the scribe (sorenskriver) in the office of the fogd was appointed to take care of the legal division of an inheritance, or the settlement of an estate, and he prepared the probate documents as a probate clerk.
Norwegian law required that the death of a person be reported to the district official as soon as possible in order to seal the estate of the deceased. Exempted from this rule was money or property set apart for the funeral and the common household. The cost of these were recorded and accounted for at the closing of the probate.
If the deceased was a parent, any children still living at home and the surviving spouse were to be present at home at the registration of the probate document, which registration was to take place on the third day after the death at the home of the deceased. All the guardians had to be present at the time of the settlement. All heirs who were not living in the parish but were residents of the same county were expected to present themselves within a set time of the registration. Usually it was up to the district official (lensmann) to decide how soon each individual was expected to be present, depending on where they lived. Those heirs living out of the county were customarily to be present within 12 weeks after the date of death. If they lived outside the country, they were usually to present themselves one year and six weeks after the date of death.
If a widow was pregnant at the time of her husband's death, she had the right to retain the undivided possession of the estate until the birth of the child so that the unborn child would also inherit from the estate. A widow or widower could not marry again before a certificate was obtained that showed that the estate had been settled.
From the commencement of such records, around 1660 to 1685, each probate court recorded deeds, probates, and other legal business in one chronological record. In 1685 the probate laws were revised and more firmly established under the authority of a bailiff in the rural areas and the mayor, aldermen, and city judge in the cities. By 1690, however, a district judge was the administrator in probate matters in the county courts. At the same time, the administration of probates in the cities came under the jurisdiction of the city judge alone.
Probate records of clergy and school teachers were kept separately from the civil records and were administered by some of the local church officials. This separate condition existed in general up to 1809 and in some districts up to 1812.
According to the Law of 1685, which was in force until 1814, the sequence of distribution of an inheritance was as follows:
The next of kin went to the court with a sponsor or guardian no sooner than 30 days after the death of the relative.
In the earlier days, it was customary to give 50 percent of the property to the surviving spouse and the other 50 percent to the children, with male children receiving twice as much as female children. This rule was later changed so that all children received equal amounts. If no spouse or children were living, the estate reverted to the deceased's father or his brother and sisters. If these relatives were unavailable, the estate reverted to the deceased person's mother or her brothers and sisters, then to the grandparents, and then to other remaining relatives.
The Norwegian law provided for the guardianship of children under 25. At the mother's death the father was appointed. At the father's death one of the brothers of the children was appointed if he was over the age of 25 (a person was considered a minor until that age). Next in line was the grandfather on the father's side, then the grandfather on the mother's side. After the grandfather, the next in line were the uncles on the father's side and then the uncles on the mother's side. If none of these persons were alive, then the nearest relatives on the father's side were appointed. If this was impossible, then the nearest relatives on the mother's side were appointed. If no relatives could be found, the government appointed some reliable persons as guardians for the children.
The Availability of Probate Records
Early probate records for clergy, school teachers, and military officers were often separated from the regular probate records. Church officials conducted probate proceedings for priests or schoolteachers, commanding officers for military officers. After 1812 a probate judge conducted these probates along with all other probates.
TheFamily History Library has an excellent collection of Norwegian probate records. These are listed in the catalog under:
NORWAY, [REGION] - PROBATE RECORDS
Records before 1687 are usually listed under:
NORWAY - COURT RECORDS
Many of the Norwegian probate records are not indexed. Those that are indexed may be indexed by given name, surname, or the name of the farm where the deceased person resided at the time of death.
History of the Norwegian Probate Records
Early on 12 well respected men from the community, the sogn (parish) or herred (civil district - usually the same area as the parish), were appointed as members of the court, and they were, along with the bailiff, responsible for all cases, including probates. Late in the 16th century the sorenskriver or byskriver (scribe - sorenskriver in the rural communities - byskriver in the cities) were assigned to prepare the documents in connection with the probates, since most of the men in the community (many of them farmers) were not able to write, at least not extensively. Often an ordinary probate would be 20 pages or more. Later the sorenskriver took on more responsibility in the probate proceedings. He had a vote in the outcome until the title of Sorenskriver took on the meaning of Judge, and he made the final decisions.
Most probate records start around 1687, when a law was written in order to have a more systematic, legal procedure and to better protect the rights of minor heirs. Some probate records start as a separate record earlier, but most of the probates of earlier dates were part of the general court records. Many probates were conductred privately, the heirs themselves dividing the property and paying the debts. The only probates that took place in court were when the heirs could not agree on the division, and it became a matter for the court to resolve the differences.
Probate Card Indexes in Norway
The Probate card indexes (produced by the Norwegian Archives) are by far the best indexes. They are indexed by the name of the farm where a person lived and are of great value because they will list:
If you are searching for your ancestors in the probate records make sure you check the card index (kort register) as they list the vital information about your ancestors without having to spend hours searching through the actual probates. These indexes are available on microfilm at the Family History Library. A card index has not been produced for every probate district in Norway.
Probate Records available online at Digital Archives