United States, Wills, Administrations, and Inventories

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Introduction

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 predate 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.


What You Are Looking For

The information you find varies from record to record. These records may include:

  • Name of an ancestor.
  • Date and place of death.
  • Names of parents.
  • Names of spouse and children.
  • Lists of belongings, property, and so forth.
  • Biographical information.

Steps

These 7 steps may help you find information in probate records.



Step 1. Determine the county where your ancestor lived.

Check the following to find the county where your ancestor lived:

  • Family records (histories, pedigree charts, family group sheets, etc.).
  • Published family histories.
  • Censuses.

For additional ways to find where your ancestor lived, see How to Locate Your Ancestor in the United States.

Step 2. Search for a county index for probate records in the Family History Library Catalog.

Since an index may be found with the record or separately, in the Family History Library Catalog, look for indexes under both:

  • PROBATE RECORDS.
  • PROBATE RECORDS - INDEXES.

For descriptions of records available through Family History Centers or the Family History Library, click on Family History Library Catalog in the window to the left:


  • State records will be shown automatically.
  • To find county records, click on the County tab, and select the county of your ancestor.

Printing the catalog entry is usually helpful.

If you do not find an index, you may want to look for your ancestor's name in the record itself during the approximate dates after your ancestor died. Skip to step 4.

If you do not find county probate records, see Tip 1.

Step 3. Search the index for your ancestor's name, and copy the information.

Find your ancestor's name in the index.

Copy everything about your ancestor from the index. This information is necessary for you to find him or her in the record.

If you cannot find your ancestor's name, check for variations of the spelling. For suggestions, see Name Variations.

Step 4. Find the probate records.

Find the catalog entries for the records. If the catalog entry you printed showed both the index and the records, you won't need to return to the catalog to find the film numbers for the appropriate records.

Obtain the book or film with the records.

For information on where to obtain copies of records, see Where to Find It.

Step 5. Search the record for information about your ancestor.

Using what you found in the index, find your ancestor in the record.

For a list of Internet sites with probate records or more information about these records, see Tip 2.

Step 6. Copy the information from the record.

Make a photocopy of the page(s) with the information about your ancestor. By copying the entire page(s), you can study the record in depth and save it for future reference. You can analyze the handwriting and note other details you may have missed when you first looked at the record. You may find other relatives of your ancestor.

Be sure to document the source of the information by writing the title, author, book or film number, and page number on the copy, or photocopy the title page at the front of the book or film. Also write the name of the library, archive, etc., where you found the probate records.

Step 7. Analyze the information you found.

Study the document. Compare the information to what you already knew about your ancestor.

  • What does it tell you about your ancestor and about the people who were with him or her?
  • Does the record give clues about your ancestor which could guide you to other records?
  • Watch for dates, locations, relationships, etc.

Tips

Tip 1. What can I do if I cannot find county probate records for the area where my ancestor lived?

If you cannot find probate records, check:

  • State records in the Family History Library Catalog. For records recommended for your ancestor's state, see the chart below. For Rhode Island there are town probate records. In Connecticut and Vermont there are districts which handled probates.
  • Other types of records, such as church, land, etc., listed on the Search Strategy.
  • Another place where your ancestor lived.
  • PERSI, which is an index of magazines. Information which is too short for a book may be found in a magazine article. For information about PERSI, see Tip 3.

To see recommended probate records for your ancestor's state, click on the state name below, and scroll to the Probate Records section of the research outline: