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Probate records are court records that describe the distribution of people's estates after death. Information in the records may include a person's death date, heirs and guardians, relationships, residences, estate inventory, and witnesses.
These records are very helpful because in many areas the authorities began recording probate actions before they began keeping birth and death records. In these records whole families are 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.
Probate records were not created for every person who died. However, the probate law of 1687 stated that probate was necessary if a parent died and left children that were not of age (25 years old). 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 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 anciently called fylker. 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 sorenskriverier (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.
The Family History Library has an excellent collection of Norwegian probate records. These are listed in the catalog under:
NORWAY, [REGION] - PROBATE RECORDS
NORWAY, [COUNTY] - PROBATE RECORDS
NORWAY, [COUNTY], [PARISH] - PROBATE RECORDS
Records before 1687 are usually listed under:
NORWAY - COURT RECORDS
NORWAY, [REGION] - COURT RECORDS
NORWAY, [COUNTY] - COURT RECORDS
NORWAY, [COUNTY], [PARISH] - 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.