New Jersey Probate Records
- 1 Record Synopsis
- 2 History
- 3 State Statutes
- 4 Statewide Record Collections
- 5 Websites
- 6 References
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.” Genealogists often refer to 'Probate Records' as "All records which relate to the disposition of an estate," whether the person died leaving a will (testate) or not (intestate).
Various types of records are created throughout the probate process. These may include, wills, guardianships, bonds, petitions, accounts, inventories, administrations, orders, depositions, 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.
Until the 1670s, wills were probated by notary publics (according to Dutch law and custom). The notaries kept these documents in their personal custody and unfortunately were not required to record them in county or state records. For the whereabouts of these records, see New York Probate Records.
Prerogative Court, 1670 to 1784
From 1702 to 1738 New York and New Jersey had the same governor. As a result many New Jersey probate records can be found among New York City, or Albany probate records.
The prerogative court began probating New Jersey wills and administrations in 1670. Authority to probate estates was vested in the governor, who was the judge of the prerogative court. He functioned as the "ordinary" or "surrogate general" until 1844. Because it was impossible for governors to personally oversee all probates, they appointed deputies or "surrogates" to act in their behalf. Probates for East and West Jersey continued to be recorded in Perth Amboy and Burlington until 1784. In that year, the secretary of state became the register of the prerogative court, and all original records from then on were sent to his office in Trenton.
In the 1790s, the probate records earlier filed with the provincial secretaries were transferred to the office of the secretary of state for preservation. Prerogative court records include wills, administrations, letters of guardianship, and records of lunacy hearings. The prerogative court only functioned in an appellate capacity from 1784 to 1947, when it was replaced by the superior courts. Probate records filed with the prerogative court since 1784 generally consist of appeals made from local surrogate's and orphans' courts and records of the settling of estates where land was situated in two or more counties.
County Orphans' Courts, 1785 to 1947
Responsibility for all probate matters was transferred in 1784 from the state prerogative court to the newly created orphans' courts. After 1804, this responsibility was shared with the surrogate's courts. Orphans' courts continued to handle guardianships, probates of estates for which there were no wills, partitions of estates, and lunacy hearings. Both the orphans' courts and the prerogative courts had jurisdiction over disputes relating to wills and appeals from the surrogates' courts. Petitions for adoption could have been filed in the orphans' court or the circuit court. Orphans' courts were abolished in 1947, and their functions were assumed by the superior courts.
Secretary of State and County Surrogates; Courts, 1804 to Present
The Secretary of State has the original wills and probate records. (State Archives, 225 West State Street, PO Box 307, Trenton, New Jersey 08625-0307.
Until 1804, all wills were sent to the registrar of the prerogative court to be recorded. Since 1804, copies of all probates have been recorded at the office of the county surrogate. The original wills, administrations, accounts, and inventories have been sent to the secretary of state (more recently, the superior court) in Trenton.
The Family History Library has microfilm copies of most state probate records from 1665 through 1900 and most county probate records through the early 1900s. The state archives has microfilm copies and the originals of all records formerly held by the secretary of state, 1670 to 1901, as well as microfilms of many pre-1901 county probate records. The county surrogate's court offices generally have orphans' court records from 1785 to the present, surrogates' court records from 1804 to the present, and some earlier records.
Understanding the New Jersey 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. New Jersey statutes are available on the New Jersey Legislature web site.
The following are examples of free, digital books related to New Jersey probate laws:
- Kocher, Charles Frederic. New Jersey Probate Law and Practice : With a Complete Set of Forms Under the Recent Orphans' Court and Prerogative Court Rules. Available at Internet Archive.
- Randolph, Joseph Fitz. A Review and Index of Succession Law in the State of New Jersy, Including Statutes and Decisions from 1776 to 1905, Relating to ... Probate.... Newark, N.J. : Soney, 1906. Available at Internet Archive.
- Dickinson, S. Meredith. The Practice of the Probate Courts of New Jersey, Together with Forms of Proceedings Therein, also Rules of the Prerogative Court and of the Orphans' Courts. Jersey City, N.J.: Frederick D. Linn & Co., 1884. Available at Google Books.
Additional information about New Jersey state statutes relating to probate matters can be found at law libraries.
Statewide Record Collections
Indexes to State Probate Records, 1673 to 1901
Most estates probated before 1901 are indexed in:
- Index of Wills, Inventories, Etc. in the Office of the Secretary of State Prior to 1901, 3 vols., 1912. Reprinted as New Jersey Index of Wills. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1969. (Family History Library book 974.9 P22s 1969; film 545437; fiche 6051315.) The index is arranged county-by-county and begins in 1705 (except Salem County which is indexed from 1679). Most entries give probate file numbers referring to county probate records. These files are now at the state archives and are on microfilm at the Family History Library under NEW JERSEY, [COUNTY] - PROBATE RECORDS.
Some of the other references in this index are to:
- East Jersey wills, administrations, and guardianships, 1715 to 1785 (Family History Library films 522735-40)
- West Jersey wills, administrations, and guardianships, 1705 to 1804 (Family History Library films 522714-34)
- Unrecorded wills and inventories, 1673 to 1747 (Family History Library films 545494-96, 2293540 and 522712-13)
- Prerogative court wills, 1786 to 1905. These books are at the state archives and contain recorded copies of probates. (Family History Library films beginning with 522741.)
- Prerogative court unrecorded wills, 1823 to 1900. These are at the state archives and some are on Family History Library films 1022898-901 and 1032122 item 2. There are a few wills 1901-1906 and one for Peter Lorillard, 1924-1925, on film 1022901.
Index of Wills
Prior to 1901 has been consolidated into one alphabetical list for the state by Lee Smeal and Ronald Vern Jackson and published as:
- Index to New Jersey Wills, 1689-1890, The Testators. Salt Lake City, Utah: Accelerated Indexing Systems, 1979. (Family History Library book 974.9 P22a.) Its single alphabetical sequence, listing records from 1689 to 1901, makes it easy to use, but it often only gives partial source citations. It also omits all references to the prerogative court probates of West Jersey, 1705 to 1804, and East Jersey, 1715 to 1785.
State Probate Abstracts, 1670 to 1817
Most wills and letters of administration from 1670 to 1817 have been accurately abstracted and indexed in volumes 23, 30, and 32 through 42 of the Archives of the State of New Jersey. Each volume has abstracts for several years arranged alphabetically by the names of decedents. Volume and page or file references are given so that you can find the original documents. Each volume has an every-name index.
- Volume 23 (will abstracts begin in Section 7), available online, courtesy: Google Books.
Copies of probates from 1804 to the present are at the offices of the county surrogate where the testators resided. Search the records of all surrogate's courts in all counties where an ancestor owned property.
Some wills, administrations, and guardianship records for the period from 1804 to 1830 were transferred from the county offices to the office of the secretary of state before being recorded. These are found in the records of the secretary of state and are indexed in:
Index of Wills
Index of Wills, Office of Secretary of State, State of New Jersey, 1705 to 1804 and Index of Wills, Office of Secretary of State, State of New Jersey, 1804 to 1830. Trenton, New Jersey: John L. Murphy Publishing, 1901. (Family History Library book 974.9 S2ns, Volumes 1-2; film 1425613, items 1-2; fiche 6045832-33.) No circulation of these microfiche to Family History Centers.
The Family History Library has microfilm copies of recorded wills and indexes for all counties from 1804 to the early 1900s.
The records for most counties at the Family History Library also include applications for probate, partition and divisions of land, applications for administration, administration bonds, inventories, letters of administration, receipts, letters of guardianship, guardianship bonds, orphan court minutes, dockets, accounts, and other recorded probate documents.
County Estate Files
All surrogate's offices have unrecorded estate files (the original loose papers). They are valuable because they contain petitions and "partitions and divisions of estates" which list the names of heirs, their residences, and their relationships to the deceased. All known heirs are listed — even if the person died intestate. Estates filed since 1946 usually have a copy of the death certificate as well.
Many more New Jersey residents are listed in the estate files than are named in the will books. These estate files are at the offices of the county surrogates and were not transferred to the secretary of state. They are on microfilm at the Family History Library for Bergen, Camden, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Somerset, and Union counties from as early as 1784 to the early 1900s. The state archives has microfilm copies of estate files for several counties, including Middlesex and Somerset.
County Surrogate's Court Indexes
Most county probate records, both recorded and unrecorded, are indexed by general estate or surrogate's indexes. These are on microfilm at the Family History Library for the period from 1804 to about 1970.
Obtaining Copies of County Probate Records
Copies of recorded probate records and the estate files can be obtained from the surrogate's offices for a fee. Addresses of surrogate's offices are found in:
- Eichholz, Alice, Editor. Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources. Revised Edition. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, 2004. (FHL book 973 D27rb 2004) Explains state-by-state history, vital records, census, background sources, periodicals, archives, libraries, societies, maps, land, probate, court, tax, cemetery, church, and military records. Includes county boundary map and table which shows when each county was created and the parent counties.
In addition, copies of the original wills, administrations, inventories, and guardianships sent to Trenton since 1901 can be ordered from:
- Clerk of the Superior Court
- Records Information Center
- P.O. Box 967
- Trenton, New Jersey 08625-0967
- Telephone: 609-292-4978
- Fax: 609-777-0094
- Internet: http://www.answers.com/topic/new-jersey-superior-court
New Jersey State Archives A listing of Estate (Probate) Records can be found under "Genealogical Holdings."
A wiki article describing an online collectionis found at:
- Henry Campbell Black, Black's Law Dictionary, 5th ed. (St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Co., 1979), 1081, "probate."
- Val. D. Greenwood, The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, 3rd ed. (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 2000), 309.