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Probate is the “court procedure by which a will is proved to be valid or invalid” and encompasses “all matters and proceedings pertaining to the administration of estates, guardianships, etc.” 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. For further information about the probate process, types of probate records, analyzing probate records, and to access a glossary of probate terms, see United States Probate Records.
Probate records have been kept by at the county level in Virginia by the general court and by the county and circuit courts. For the colonial period, dozens of Virginia wills were proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in London, England. In independent cities, probates are now kept by the clerks' offices of the circuit courts.
The following events affected political/jurisdictional boundaries and record keeping.
- 1607 - Founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America.
- 1624 - Virginia established as a crown colony with an elected General Assembly.
- 1710-1740s Passes leading to Shenandoah Valley were discovered. Emigrants from Pennsylvania and New Jersey began to enter the valley.
- 1750-1784 - Land grants made to the Ohio Company encouraged exploration beyond the Alleghenies. Much of this was later ceded to Pennsylvania.1770s The Wilderness Road opened Virginia into Kentucky. That area later became Kentucky.
- 1784 - Virginia ceded its claims north of the Ohio River to the United States.
- 1788 - Virginia became a state.
- 1792 Kentucky became a separate state.
- 1861-1870 Most of Virginia joined the Confederacy, although fifty western counties broke off and were admitted to the Union as the state of West Virginia in 1863. Virginia was readmitted to the Union in 1870.
In probate case files you may find wills, inventories, appraisals, accounts, and bonds. Probate records may also be included in deed books and court order books.
Although a number of Virginia records have been destroyed, research in Virginia counties can still be successful.
- A brief history of the settlement and boundary changes of Virginia and the resultant effects on record keeping can be found on Ancestry. ($)
- A discussion of Virginia Probate Records written by Johni Cerny and Gareth L. Mark for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources can be found at Ancestry.($)
The wills of colonial Virginians may have been proved locally, or abroad. Many wills were probated in London and Edinburgh.
Proved in Virginia
Excellent printed indexes to Virginia's wills and administrations are available for the period for the early 1600s to 1865:
- Torrence, Clayton. Virginia Wills and Administrations, 1632-1800. 1930; reprint, Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1985. FHL Book 975.5 P22t; FHL Film 29274. A revised and updated edition is available for free online at the Library of Virginia's website.
- Pippenger, Wesley E. Index to Virginia Estates, 1800-1865. 10 vols. Richmond, Va.: Virginia Genealogical Society, 2001-2008. FHL Book 975.5 P22p v. 1.
Pippenger's book references all types of probate records, including inventories, accounts, etc.
Proved in London
Virginia 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 Virginia references:
- 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 ($).
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. American Wills & Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610-1857. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1989. FHL Book 942 P27c; digital version at Ancestry ($).
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. American Wills Proved in London, 1611-1775. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992. FHL Book 973 P27ca; digital version at Ancestry ($).
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. North American Wills Registered in London, 1611-1857. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007. FHL Book 942 P27c 2007.
Many English wills mentioning Virginia (and some Scottish and Irish wills) have been reproduced in the Virginia Colonial Records Project (Library of Virginia). For a guide, see:
- Walne, Peter. English Wills: Probate Records in England and Wales With a Brief Note on Scottish and Irish Wills, A Special Report of the Virginia Colonial Records Project, 2nd ed. Richmond, 1981.
If you find a will abstact that interests you in Walne's or 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)
Proved in Edinburgh
The wills of some Virginia residents were proved in Edinburgh, Scotland, see:
- Dobson, David. Scottish-American Wills, 1650-1900. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1991. FHL Book 973 P22d. 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
Understanding the Virginia 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 Virginia state statutes relating to probate matters can be found at law libraries. Online digital versions of state statutes can often be found by conducting a search engine search for the term, "Virginia statutes."
The original probate records are at the county courthouses or at the Library of Virginia.
The Library of Virginia and the Family History Library have microfilm copies of many probate records for most of the counties in Virginia. These include wills up to the 1860s and 1870s and indexes up to the 1940s and 1950s. For example, from Fairfax County the library has administration bonds (1752-82), will books (1742-1866), and a will index (1742-1951).
The Family History Library has a good collection of probate records and indexes on both the state and local level. Some begin in the very early 1600s.
Statewide Record Collections
A helpful inventory of probate records at the Library of Virginia is:
- Vogt, John, and T. William Kethley, Jr. Will and Estate Records in the Virginia State Library: A Researcher's Guide. Athens, Georgia: Iberian Publishing Company, 1987. FHL Book 975.5 P23v.
For abstracts of early Virginia wills, the following reference books are available:
- Hopkins, William Lindsay. Some Wills from Burned Counties of Virginia and Other Wills Not Listed in the Virginia Wills and Administrations, 1632-1800. Richmond, Virginia: W.L. Hopkins, 1987. FHL Book 975.5 P2h.
- Currer-Briggs, Noel. Virginia Settlers and English Adventurers, Abstracts of Wills, 1484-1798, and Legal Proceedings, 1560-1700, Relating to Early Virginia Families. Three volumes in one. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing, 1970. FHL Book 975.5 P2cb.
- King, George H.S. "Copies of Extant Wills from Counties Whose Records Have Been Destroyed," which was originally published in Tyler's Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine, was reprinted in Volume 4 of Genealogies of Virginia Families From Tyler's Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine.
- McGhan, Judith. Virginia Will Records. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing, 1982. FHL Book 975.5 P2v. Excerpted and reprinted from The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the William and Mary Quarterly Historical Magazine, and Tyler's Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine.
Online collections include:
- Virginia Land, Marriage, and Probate Records, 1639-1850 database, Ancestry. (http://ancestry.com) includes wills from the counties of Augusta, Isle of Wight, and Norfolk.
- Probate Inventory Database: Virginia and Maryland Probate Inventories 300+ Transcriptions Recorded 1740 - 1810, courtesy: Gunston Hall Plantation.
- Chancery Records Index (search online database with digital images)
Additional Statewide Collections
- Colonial Virginia Source Records, 1600s-1700s. [S.l.]: Brøderbund, c2000. FHL CD-ROM no. 9 pt. 510 (FHL US/CAN Access Window).
- Oliver, Harold. Virginia in the 1600's, An Index to Who was There!---and Where! Riverside, California: D&H Pub. Co., c1992-. FHL Book 975.5 H22v vol.1; FHL Book 975.5 H22v vol.2.
- Daughters of the American Revolution (Virginia). Genealogical Records (Family, Church and War Records, etc.). Salt Lake City, Utah: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1972. FHL Film 897333 Items 1-2.
- Daughters of the American Revolution (Virginia). Genealogical records. Salt Lake City, Utah: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1970. FHL Film 850096 Item 9, Film 850097 Items 3-4.
- Miscellaneous Wills of Virginia, 1675-1884. San Marino. California: Henry E. Huntington Library, 1948. FHL Film 29281.
- Daughters of the American Revolution (Virginia). Records, ca. 1700-1930 FHL Film 850096 Items 5-6.
- Daughters of the American Revolution (Virginia). Report, 1933. Salt Lake City, Utah: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1970. FHL Film 850096 Item 7.
- Fleet, Beverley. Virginia Colonial Abstracts. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Pub. Co., c1988. FHL Book 975.5 N2fb 1988, 3 vol.
- Daughters of the American Revolution (Virginia). Virginia Genealogical Records: Bibles,Wills, Deeds, Genealogies.Salt Lake City, Utah: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1971. FHL Film 858646 Item 6.
- Bell, Annie W. B.Virginia Genealogies and County Records. Salt Lake City, Utah: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1970. FHL Film 850096 Items 1-4.
- Nimmo, Thomas.Virginia Notes. Salt Lake City, Utah: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1970. FHL Film 850095.
- Vogt, John, William T. Kethley and Virginia State Library and Archives (Richmond Virginia). Will and Estate Records in the Virginia State Library A Researcher's Guide. Athens, Georgia: Iberian Pub. Co., c1987. FHL Book 975.5 P23v.
- The Library Of Virginia
Archives And Research Services
800 East Broad Street
Richmond, VA 23219
Library of Virginia
- The Library Of Virginia
- FindLaw has information on Virginia State Probate Courts.
- Sources for Virginia Genealogy Research at About.com has a bibliography of sources for learning about Virginia Probate Records.
- Jurisdiction information of Virginia courts can be found at the Library of Virginia Internet site.
- ↑ Henry Campbell Black, Black's Law Dictionary, 5th ed. (St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Co., 1979), 1081, "probate."
- ↑ John Frederick Dorman, "Review of Genealogies of Virginia Families From Tyler's Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine," in The Virginia Genealogist, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan.-Mar. 1982):59. Digital version at American Ancestors ($). FHL Book 975.5 B2vg v. 26 (1982)