North Carolina Probate Records
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.
Most probate records in North Carolina were created on a county level though many were later sent to the North Carolina State Archives. For the colonial period, dozens of North Carolina wills were proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in London, England. The contents of probate records vary greatly depending on the prevailing law and the personality of the record keeper.
Following is a brief accounting of wills in specific time frames. More details are found later in this article.
Before 1760 - Most wills were probated by the County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions in the county.
1760–1868 - Most wills are in the offices of the clerk of the superior court in the county where the
testator legally resided.
Between 1868 and 1966 - Wills were proved in the superior court of the county.
Since 1966 - All documents relating to probate cases are kept in case files.
Probate records in the state fall into two general categories: wills and estate papers. Most records mention the names of heirs and frequently specify how those heirs are related. Names of children may be given, as well as married names of daughters. Probate records may not give an exact death date, but a death most often occurred within a few months of the date of probate.
- A brief history of the settlement and boundary changes of North Carolina and the resultant effects on record keeping can be found on Ancestry. ($)
- A discussion of North Carolina Probate Records written by Johni Cerny and Gareth L. Mark for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources can be found at Ancestry. ($)
Understanding the North Carolina 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 North Carolina 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, "North Carolina statutes."
The clerk of the superior court in each county has early probate records.
North Carolina State Archives has both originals and copies of probate records.
- The Family History Library has a good collection of North Carolina Probate Records from 1663 - 1923 on both a state and county level. Some are films of the originals, but many are abstracts.
Statewide Record Collections
The first source you should check to determine if your ancestor left a will in North Carolina between the years 1665 and 1900 is:
- Mitchell, Thornton W. North Carolina Wills: A Testator Index, 1665–1900. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing, 1992. FHL Collection975.6 P22t 1992. This book lists the name of the testator (the person who had the will prepared), the county where the will was probated, the year it was probated, the volume and page number of the recorded will, and the location of the original will. Wills that were not recorded in the county records are also listed. The book has a county-by-county summary of available wills.
Proved in North Carolina
Prior to 1760 most wills were probated by the County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions in the county. The original wills and accompanying estate papers were supposed to be sent to the secretary of state for filing, regardless of where the will was probated. Some counties did not send their records in.
Most of the original wills and papers for the period 1663 to 1790, however, are at the North Carolina State Archives. Digital images of the original wills, arranged alphabetically by name of testator, are available on their website. Some users may find it difficult to find these records on their website. The following instructions should help:
- Visit Manuscript and Archives Reference System (Mars) (North Carolina State Archives catalog)
- Search, with the setting as "A Mars Id matching," for the series 12.96
- Click Records of Probate: Wills
- In the pop-up window, follow the link Show List of Child Records
- This will bring up links to 28 boxes of the original wills. Box 1 begins with "A" surnames. Box 28 concludes with "Z" surnames.
- To view online images of the original wills, click on a box, for example Box 1, in the resulting pop-up window, click Show List of Child Records
- Browse the list of wills. When you find a will of interest, click on the person's name and a pop-up window will allow you to View Document (it may be necessary to install free software to view the images)
Alternatively, it is possible to conduct a Basic Search for a name on the Mars system; however, users should be warned that the search lacks soundex capabilities and is not restricted to probate records.
Breakdown of 28 Will Boxes at North Carolina State Archives Website
|13||Jackson-Jones (Sarah)||27||Weston-Williams (Stephen)|
|14||Jones (Thomas)-Leaton||28||Williams (Thomas)-Zimmerman|
These records are alternatively available on microfilm through FamilySearch:
- North Carolina. Division of Archives and History (Raleigh, North Carolina). Wills and Estate Papers (North Carolina), 1663–1789. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1988–1989. (On 7 Family History Library films beginning FHL Collection, film 1605076 item 22.
Published abstracts and transcripts of some of these early wills can be found in the following two books:
- Grimes, John Bryan. Abstract of North Carolina Wills [1690–1760] Compiled from Original and Recorded Wills in the Office of the Secretary of State. Raleigh, N.C.: E.M. Uzzell & Co., State Printers and Binders, 1910. 1967 reprint: FHL Collection, book 975.6 P2gr 1967; fiche 6046876 [set of 8]; FHL Collection, book 975.6 P2gr 2000; digital versions at Ancestry ($); Eastern North Carolina Digital Library, Google Books and Internet Archive. This book contains approximately 2,600 wills taken from both original and recorded wills. The index includes all the names that appear in the wills. There are some abstracting errors, so you should examine the original will. The index also lists names of plantations.
- Grimes, John Bryan. North Carolina Wills and Inventories Copied from the Original Recorded Wills and Inventories in the Office of the Secretary of State. Raleigh, N.C.: Edwards & Broughton Printing Company, Printers and Binders, 1912. 1967 reprint: FHL Collection, book 975.6 P2g 1967; film 459632 item 1; fiche 6051125; digital versions at Ancestry ($); Eastern North Carolina Digital Library; and Internet Archive. This book is an incomplete listing of wills. It contains transcripts of 203 wills and 47 inventories recorded from 1665 through 1790. The purpose of this publication was to show examples of what personal items were in possession of early North Carolina families. There is an index to testators, inventories, plantations, slaves’ names, land, and other subjects. The index lists those who made the wills but does not list those persons mentioned in the wills.
For the years 1760–1868, most wills are in the offices of the clerk of the superior court in the county where the testator legally resided. Abstracts of more than 8,000 original wills covering 1760 to 1800 can be found in:
- Olds, Fred A. An Abstract of North Carolina Wills from about 1760 to about 1800: Supplementing Grimes’ Abstract of North Carolina Wills, 1663 to 1760. Oxford, N.C.: The Orphan's Friend, 1925. 1983 reprint: FHL Collection, book 975.6 P28o; digital version at World Vital Records ($). The wills are listed by county, and there is no index in the printed version. They are indexed on World Vital Records and an index is also available through FamilySearch on microfilm:
- Index to Abstract of North Carolina Wills from about 1760 to About 1800 prepared by Fred A. Olds. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1981. FHL Collection, film 1033627 items 1-2.
Between 1868 and 1966 wills were proved in the superior court of the county. The original will was sent to the clerk in each county court house and a copy may have been sent to the state archives.
Since 1966 all documents relating to probate cases are kept in case files. After the estate is settled, the files are microfilmed and indexed by the name of the deceased and the names of the heirs.
Proved in London
North Carolina wills and administrations proved in London have been abstracted and published multiple times. Each edition is listed here, as some are available online, while others are not. In addition, publishers included more detailed abstracts in some editions than others. The 2007 edition includes a place-name index that enables users to pluck out North Carolina references:
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. English Estates of American Colonists: American Wills and Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610-1699. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1980. Digital version at Ancestry ($).
- 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 Collection, book 942 P27c; digital version at Ancestry ($).
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. American Wills Proved in London, 1611-1775. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992. FHL Collection, book 973 P27ca; digital version at Ancestry ($).
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. North American Wills Registered in London, 1611-1857. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007. FHL Collection, book 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 pay-per-view United Kingdom 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)
When an individual died leaving a will, the legal process carrying out the provisions of the will created many loose estate papers. Most early residents of North Carolina who possessed real property did not leave a will and died intestate. The process of settling a person’s intestate estate also created loose papers. These loose papers have a variety of titles and were generally created in the following sequence:
- Petition to Probate the Estate
- Administrator’s Bond
- Petition for a Year’s Allotment for the Widow
- Petition for Widow’s Dower
- Petition of Division of Lands and Slaves
- Account of Sale
- Guardian’s Bond and Accounts
- Yearly Accounts
- Final Settlement or Final Distribution
Copies of most early estate papers are in the state archives and on microfilm. See:
- North Carolina. Division of Archives and History (Raleigh, North Carolina). Colonial Estate Papers, 1669–1759. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1996. FHL Collection, 4 films 2047891, 2047981-2047983. The records are alphabetical.
Many later loose estate papers or copies of them have been sent to the North Carolina State Archives. Counties often send their papers to the archives after 60 years. Estate papers in the state archives are presently being microfilmed in alphabetical order, county by county.
Probate records can be found in the Family History Library Catalog by using a Place Search under:
NORTH CAROLINA- PROBATE RECORDS
NORTH CAROLINA, [COUNTY]- PROBATE RECORDS
- North Carolina State Archives
109 East Jones Street
Raleigh, NC 27601-2807
North Carolina State Archives
- North Carolina State Archives
- Henry Campbell Black, Black's Law Dictionary, 5th ed. (St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Co., 1979), 1081, "probate."