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United States Probate Records
Probate records are court records created after an individual's death that relate to a court's decisions regarding the distribution of his estate to his heirs or creditors and the care of his dependents. You may find the individual's death date, the names of family members, family relationships, and residences. You may also learn about the adoption or guardianship of minor children and dependents. These documents are essential for research because they usually pre-date the birth and death records kept by civil authorities.
Not everyone left an estate that was probated by a court. Estates were probated for approximately 25 percent of the heads of households in the United States before 1900, whether or not the individual left a will.
While probate records are one of the most accurate sources of genealogical evidence, they must be used with some caution. For example, they may omit the names of deceased family members or those who have previously received an inheritance, or the spouse mentioned in a will may not be the parent of the children mentioned.
In colonial times wills were sometimes proved in courts in the old country. American wills and administrations proved in London have been abstracted and published multiple times. Each edition is listed here, as some are available online, while others are not. In addition, publishers included more detailed abstracts in some editions than others. The 2007 edition includes a place-name index that enables users to pluck out references to specific colonies or states:
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. English Estates of American Colonists: American Wills and Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610-1699. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1980. Digital version at Ancestry ($).
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. English Estates of American Colonists: American Wills and Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1700-1799. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1980. Digital version of 1991 reprint available at Ancestry ($).
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. English Estates of American Colonists: American Wills and Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1800-1858. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1981. Digital version at Ancestry ($).
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. American Wills & Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610-1857. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1989. FHL 942 P27c; digital version at Ancestry ($). Lists over 4,800 wills with name, residence, relatives, and date.
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. American Wills Proved in London, 1611-1775. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992. FHL 973 P27ca; digital version at Ancestry ($). Abstracts over 6,800 wills showing name, residence, occupation, date, and relatives.
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. North American Wills Registered in London, 1611-1857. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007. FHL 942 P27c 2007
If you find a will abstact that interests you in Coldham's books, it is now possible to view digital images of the original Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills online at two United Kingdom pay-per-view websites:
- Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills (1384-1858), courtesy: The National Archives, UK.
- PCC Wills Index and Images (1384-1858), courtesy: The Genealogist. (in progress)
Other American wills were proved in Edinburgh, Scotland, see:
- Dobson, David. Scottish-American Wills, 1650-1900. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1991. FHL 973 P22 Over 2,000 citations including name, occupation, residence, and date.
Most of these references were taken from the Commissariat Court of Edinburgh (now the Sheriff Court of Edinburgh) and the Index to Personal Estates of Defuncts, 1846-1866. If you find a will abstact that interests you in Dobson's book, it is now possible to view digital images of the original records online at a United Kingdom pay-per-view website:
- Wills & Testaments (1513-1901), courtesy: Scotlands People
Each state developed its own court system and procedures for handling probates. In most states, probate records are presently recorded by a county clerk, except in Connecticut and Vermont, where they are kept by probate districts, and Rhode Island, where they are kept by the town clerk. Some colonial records were kept by the town or the colony. The keeping of wills and estate papers usually began when the county was organized. Research outlines available for each state explain which courts were responsible for probate in that state.
Search all probate courts in all localities where the individual resided or had property. Inventories of the records at a county courthouse may help you locate the records. See the state research outlines for more information on the probate process and records of each state.
You can contact the courthouse to request a search of the indexes for the time period and surnames you need. Then request photocopies of the complete probate packet.
Many early probate records have been transcribed, indexed, and published. The Family History Library has statewide indexes or transcripts of large collections of wills that have been published for Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. These are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
- [STATE] - PROBATE RECORDS
Testate Records vs. Intestate Records
Whether a person has a will or not affects the type of records that will be created in the probate process:
Testate--The deceased individual had a will.
Intestate--No will was created by the deceased.
|Testate Estate Records||Intestate Estate Records|
Probate by State
- Anne Roach, Courthouse Records Overview (35 minute online video) FamilySearch Research Classes Online, 2010.
- Sampubco A gateway to Indexes of Will, Guardianships, Probate Records, and Letters Testamentary