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| Probate Records | How to Find Probate Records |

Probate Records

The passing of a loved one is a trying time in any family, but in later generations, the death of that ancestor can provide a wealth of valuable information to the family historian.

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Ancestors experts Curt Witcher and Leslie Smith Collier discuss the significant information that can come from death records.

portrait When a person dies, a series of events take place which create a number of documents. These can include a death certificate, a cemetery record, a church burial record, a funeral home record, or an obituary or death notice, but one of the most prized from a genealogical perspective is probate records. Probate records, which have been recorded in America since the first permanent settlement, are the documents generated in the course of settling an estate.

Probate records exist in places and for time periods when few other records are available. Estates were probated for about 25 percent of the heads of households in the U.S. before 1900, whether or not a person left a will specifying how to divide their estate. Since wills often list the names of family members, much of the population either left a will or was mentioned in one.

Among the documents that are frequently found in a probate packet, you may find the deceased's death date and death place, names of family members, family relationships, residences, a description of the deceased's estate, localities where the deceased owned property, and adoptions or guardianships for minor children, dependents, or incompetent adults. The will, if there is one, will often also provide insight into the deceased and his or her opinion of individual family members. Keep in mind, however, that each probate packet will vary in content depending on when and where it was filed.

tophat Probate records have yet another advantage in that they will often propel your ancestral search forward by leading you to land records. In many ways, probate and land records go hand in hand because land is often a central issue in probating a will. While land records don't generally include fundamental genealogical information such as birth or death dates, they will help locate or position a person or family in a time and place in history. They may also provide other clues such as proof of heirship or the maiden name of a woman when she and her husband inherited land from her father.

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Ancestors expert Leslie Smith Collier discusses some of the things you can find in land records.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries in America, a significant percentage of males who lived to maturity can be found in land records, so land records are a valuable resource for those having ancestors in the U.S. at that time. In fact, the further back in time one goes, the more valuable land records become because they frequently predate the existence of other record types.

How to Find Probate Records

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Ancestors host Scott Wilkinson and expert Irene Johnson tell where to find probate records.

Probate records are usually housed in the county courthouse that presided over the area where your ancestor died. To locate the right courthouse, you need to contact the clerk's office of the court where the person resided at the time of death. Go to the County Courthouse episode extra to learn more about using county courthouse records.

Finding the courthouse is usually quite straightforward, but finding someone who has the time to search the records may be more difficult. Not all courthouses have the time or resources to respond to genealogical requests. In such cases, you may want to visit the courthouse yourself, hire a local professional who has a good relationship with the courthouse to do the research for you, or contact a local genealogical society to see if they can secure the record you're seeking for a small fee or donation. Generally, you will want to request a search of any indexes and a copy of the actual probate packet.

couple Of course, it's always worth searching probate records online, and particularly through the Family History Library Catalog under locality records to see if perhaps the information you're seeking can be found in a compiled source. Some of these sources, such as a local genealogical society or the FHL Catalog, may at least have some indexes to probates or wills in the time and place of your interest. This will save you or your selected researcher time and effort in locating the original probate packet. It's also possible that with the actual case file number and date, an employee of the county courthouse will be more willing to fill your request.

When searching for the probate packet, keep in mind that the probate process can take years and the records may have been created at different times and in different offices of the court. Fortunately, these have usually been gathered into one probate packet, but it is useful to remember that the final settlement of the estate may not occur for some time after the date of death.

Also when looking for an ancestor's probate records, it is important to check for probate records in each locality where the person owned property. For example, if James Butler owned land on both sides of the Kentucky-Tennessee border when he died in the 1840s, two counties, each in a different state, might have probate files on him.

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