County Courthouse Records: Probate
The majority of your ancestor's interactions with the government took place at a
county courthouse. A county courthouse may also be the site of several different
courts, as well as the office of Registrar, County Clerk, and Tax Collector. Courthouse
records vary in organization, content, and jurisdiction depending on location and time period.
Some court records have been microfilmed and some are stored in central locations such as a
state archive or library, but the bulk of these important records are still held in the county
which created them. The records most commonly used by genealogists are: deeds, marriages,
tax lists, and probate records. In addition to these transactions, your ancestor may appear
on jury lists, as plaintiff, defendant, or witness in civil or criminal lawsuits, and in
divorce court. The subject of this class is the probate, or administration, procedure and
the records created thereby.
The Purpose of Probate
Probate is a legal process and exists to:
- determine heirs of a decedent;
- settle affairs of a decedent;
- transfer titles to property.
To maintain the chain of ownership, an executor or administrator is considered a legal substitute
for the decedent, and is appointed by the court, or by the will of the decedent. A guardian may be
appointed by the court to protect the interests of a minor or an individual judged by the court to be
incompetent. Courts that handle probate appear under many names: Surrogate Court,
Probate Court, or Orphan's Court, for example.
Records of this transfer of property may appear in any of the following record types: probate files,
land partitions, civil lawsuits, and land transfers. Each court maintains its own system
of record keeping; and you should be aware that these records are not always grouped together in a form convenient
for genealogists. In addition to searching probate record books and estate files, you should search
judgment books, order books, will books, administration books, inventory records,
guardian books, and court minutes. Then search for evidence of real property transfer in
partition dockets and land records.
The Probate Process
Too often, beginning genealogists simply search for an ancestor's will and if it is not found, assume that there are no estate records.
But a will is a very small part of the probate procedure, or more properly, the transfer of property, both real and personal, after death
of the owner. Three other considerations exist that may explain why no will is found. First, a significant
percentage of decedents were intestate, i.e. died without a will. This percentage varies depending on time
period and location, but it's never been insignificant. Second, laws determined the minimum value of estates
that had to pass through the probate process. Your ancestor may have died without real property and
with so little personal property that no court action was required. Third, laws once existed that
prohibited a married woman from devising property. Although you should search for them, don't expect to find wills written by your female
ancestors. Court administration of a probate case will vary, depending upon the presence of a will (testate) or its absence
(intestate); but the actions that occur between the time of death of an individual and the distribution of his or her estate are similar.
- The probate procedure begins with the petition to administer the estate. In the case of intestacy, this petition will list all proposed heirs and will conclude with a request for letters of authority to administer the estate. If the decedent had a will, that will is admitted to probate, and the executor or executrix named therein requests the issue of letters testamentary. These petitions are part of the probate or estate file and may also be entered in probate books or clerk's records.
- The court then holds a hearing on the petition. These records will be found in the Court Minutes. They are usually not found in the estate file. These proceedings will include a reading of the will and may include such things as subpoenas for witnesses. Any objections to the will are filed at this time and anyone wishing to contest the will appears at this hearing. Contested wills may also give rise to civil lawsuits. These records may be found in the Court of Common Pleas or the Circuit Court records, rather than the records of the Probate Court. If the executor cannot or will not serve, the court will appoint an administrator. If necessary, the court may also provide a guardian for a minor or incompetent. A final decision is made by the court as to the validity of the will. If the will is declared void, the estate will be distributed according to the laws for distribution of intestate property.
- Unless specifically waived in the will, an executor must post a bond, as does the administrator of an estate. The sureties for this bond are usually family members or close friends, so the relationship of the surety should be determined.
- The court next issues letters testamentary to the executor or letters of administration to the administrator and administration will proceed. The following documents are found in a typical estate administration case.
- Inventory and appraisal of all property filed in court. The real and personal property may be inventoried separately. The inventory will give a good picture of an ancestor's life style. If you are tracing the lives of slaves, they will appear in this inventory. People appointed to perform the inventory may be relatives, but are disinterested in the dispersal of the property. The original inventory is usually found in the estate file, but a copy may appear in the Inventory Records or other clerk's book.
- Creditors claims. These usually appear in the estate file.
- Interim accounts, filed yearly if the estate is not settled within one year. These are usually part of the estate file, but will also appear in the Probate Court minutes.
- Sales of real and personal property. Originals appear in the estate file; notices appear in the local newspaper; copies usually appear in court minutes or Probate Record books.
- Determination of widow's rights. Originals in estate file; copy may appear in Probate Record books.
- Guardians for minors. Originals may be found in estate file; hearing in court minutes; copy in Guardianship Records. Note that the guardian should provide annual financial accounts of his transactions on behalf of the guardian. Search these records for marriage of a minor and final accounting of the guardian.
- Bond changes, resignations, revocations, etc. Originals in estate file.
- The executor or administrator must post a notice, as prescribed by law, notifying all
persons interested in the estate before the final settlement occurs. Notices must also be posted before any
property is sold.
- A final settlement is the statement of the administrator or executor of all he has done and includes the financial accounting. In the case of an intestate administration, the final settlement will also include a determination of heirs. This statement requests that the court approve his actions and discharge him from all liability. The court will then issue the decree of distribution of an estate to the beneficiaries named in the will or to all heirs in the case of intestacy. Originals are found in the estate file; copies in the Probate Record Book or Administrations Book; also search court minutes.
The study of the records created by probate or estate administration is essential to the
family historian. As with all sources, study the probate records of your ancestor and his or
her siblings. You will also find it useful to expand this search to include neighbors.
A few points to remember in probate research:
- Identify all names found in these records. Witnesses were usually relatives. Debts
were frequently owed by, or to, close associates and family members. Personal property was
usually purchased by relatives.
- In many areas or time periods, married women did not devise property; therefore, important
inferences can be made if a woman's estate is found.
- The term "orphan" usually referred to a minor whose father was deceased. The mother
might have been still living.
- If you know that your ancestor owned property, but you are unable to locate any probate file,
check the land records. A substantial amount of property was passed to heirs prior to death,
therefore bypassing the probate procedure.
- A true search of probate records may be a page-by-page search over wide range of years.
Probate did not always take place immediately after death. It was sometimes postponed until the
property was sold or divided many years later. In addition, this close search will discover many
names not found in the indexes or the court dockets.
- Knowledge of the inheritance laws of the area and time period is necessary for a complete
understanding of probate records.
Finding Your Ancestor's Estate Record
Probate usually occurred in the decedent's county of residence at the time of death. Additional documents may
be found in counties in which the decedent held real property. (In the New England states,
a probate district had jurisdiction, not the county court, although the two may overlap.) To find
probate records, examine the holdings of the relevant courts and conduct a survey of derivative sources.
The online exercise, "Finding Probate Information," can be reached through the red question
mark to the left. Follow along, or insert your own geographic area of interest. A summary of
the basic steps follows here.
- First, locate the relevant courts in your area of interest. These could be circuit courts, district courts,
probate courts, surrogate courts, or orphan's courts, to name a few.
- Find information on each court's holdings. Determine what records exist and what years are covered.
- Perform a Google search for the county court website. This site will have information on
location, hours, and contact persons. It might have a listing of holdings, and may even have an
area with information specific to genealogy research.
- If the county courthouse website has little information, search the relevant county GenWeb site found on
USGenWeb. This site may include the necessary information.
- If online sites aren't helpful, consult Ancestry's Red Book or other guide at your local
- It may be necessary to contact the courthouse for additional information.
- Next, locate the records, themselves.
- A few court records are finding their way online in digitized images. The
St. Louis Probate Court Records, 1802-1900 are one of the largest groups I've found.
- Search the microfilmed records of the
FamilySearch Catalog. Use a Place search on the county in question, then
check the holdings under Probate Records.
- FamilySearch currently (January 2013) includes digital images of a variety of probate records from these
states: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire,
New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington,
West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Coverage varies by time and by county, and almost all of these collections are browse-only.
Some county-specific probate record collections are also included in the listing. You won't find these records by entering a name in the site's home page
search box. You can find them via the FamilySearch catalog, where they will be marked as as "Online" holdings, or find
them listed on the "Historical Records Collections" page.
- From the FamilySearch home page, choose your location of interest.
- Narrow the resulting records list by state (or country) or limit it to the "Probate & Court" collection.
- Because many estate records are held by the various state archives, always visit the
state archives online sites. In addition to listing the record holdings, these sites may include probate
indexes and will include important background information on the estate records themselves. In addition to probate
indexes, search the site for information on court dockets, or calendars. These are
lists of pending cases in the order they will be considered by the court. Although not an index,
they give a quick view of all the cases considered by the court per term
- If you can't locate the records online or through the FHL, microform holdings may be held in
county or state libraries, or in historical or genealogical society centers. Their hours, parking, and
finding aids may be more helpful than those at the courthouse. These repositories
usually have good websites.
- A complete search of all estate-related records will probably still involve a trip to the
courthouse, but that trip will be more productive if you've done your homework.
- Finally, you need to find your records of interest.
- Many counties have published abstracts of wills with "every-name" indexes. These will help
you locate records more quickly, but remember that most of these publications do not include
estate administrations. You will miss records found in intestate files. To find these, search
WorldCat using keywords "county name" and "probate".
- Online probate abstracts and indexes do exist. A few courthouse web sites provide online indexes.
Abstracts and indexes may be found on some USGenWeb county web pages.
- Search the county Message Board at RootsWeb.com.
Locate the county message board, then use the Advanced Search option to limit the results to
those classified as "Wills". You may be lucky.
- When obtaining microfilm from the FHL:
- Order the indexes first but note that these indexes usually name only administrators
and/or decedents. Expand your index search to include all associated surnames.
- Order all available probate volumes, estate files, guardianship papers and associated
Sooner or later, every genealogist will make a trip to an ancestor's homestead. This trip should
be well planned and should include several days (at least) in the courthouse. Research in a courthouse
is not like researching in a library. There are many pitfalls, but most can be avoided.
- First, a courthouse is a place of business and doesn't exist for the sole use of genealogists. The
more self-reliant you are, the more help you're likely to get.
- Do your homework in advance.
- Dress as a professional. You don't need a suit, but avoid shorts, tank tops, and flip-flops. You're
a professional, not a tourist.
- Bring all your necessary supplies: paper, pens and pencils, briefcase, etc.
- Keep your questions short and to the point. The clerk isn't interested in your family history.
- Be aware that many courthouses now store early records off-site. Twenty-four hour notice may be
necessary to see these records.
- Follow all rules! I have seen researchers escorted off the premises.
It's helpful to keep in mind how probate records were used in the courthouse. This may help you
find all relevant documents.
- The original estate files, including all the original papers, the will, the inventory, bonds, subpoenas, etc.
were usually kept in probate packets. These are the documents you really want to see. These packets
were usually given a number and stored chronologically. The information in these packets would not be readily accessible
for a busy court clerk or recorder, so important documents would be transcribed in various registers as they
- These probate registers, by whatever name, are indexed. There may be an index covering
many years, a volume index, or both. In order to find the estate file, you must first find the file number
recorded in the probate register.
- You think you know what an index is, don't you? You'll no longer think that after looking at a
courthouse index. A Graves Tabular Index, one common courthouse index, can be seen by
clicking on the scroll on the left. The book icon will take you to a more complete discussion of the
variety of courthouse indexes. Although this discussion refers to those indexes found in Maryland counties,
the same indexes appear throughout the country.
- Clerks may have recorded the various probate documents in one record book, or scattered them among several
different registers: probate books, accounts, guardianship registers, partition dockets, bonds, final decrees,
to name a few. All these registers may be indexed together in one probate index, or you may need to
search many separate indexes.
- Find your surnames of interest in the probate index. Find the clerk's transcription and locate
the relevant estate file number. Then find the original files, wherever they may be stored.
- Make sure you follow-up on all references to other volumes or court cases.
All genealogists should search for the best possible source. Indexes and abstracts
may help you locate your subject's probate record. A study of the court clerk's transcriptions
will give more complete information and help you discover other records of interest. However,
nothing will take the place of the original documents. Find them and study them.
Online Articles and Databases
For further information on estate records:
- "Analyzing Wills for Useful Clues"
from OnBoard - the Newsletter of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, Volume 1, Number 2 (May 1995).
- "Analyzing Deeds and Wills: I See What it Says, but What Does It Mean" by Elizabeth
Shown Mills at the 1999 FGS Conference Meet Me In St. Louis -- The people of America, unfortunately no longer
readily available, but excellent if you can locate a copy.
- "Estate Sales: The Lessons of Isaac Collett" by
Leslie Smith Collier at the 1999 NGS Conference in the States, available from
A Google search using keywords "historical analysis" and "probate records" yields a long list of sites showing
the use of probate records by historians and educators. This is a small sample.
- Teaching Probate Records: "A
Colonial Woman Speaks from the Grave: Who Was Sarah Green and What Is She Trying to Tell Us?"
- "The Probate Inventories of Port
Royal, Jamaica", Master's thesis, Diana Vida Thornton, Texas A&M University, August 1992.
- "Household wealth, indebtedness, and
economic growth in early modern England", Mark Overton, 14th International Economic History Congress,
Helsinki, Finland, August 2006.
Some online state-level probate indexes:
Search for online county-level probate indexes and records at the relevant county court's website.
Archives research guides: examples
The following is a list of documents that may be produced in the probate court. Originals will usually be found in the estate file packet, but check for copies in the various record books produced by the court (from The Source (1984), p. 185).
- Estate docket
- Guardianship docket
- Claims docket
- Letters testamentary
- Appointment or change of guardian
- Redress for misuse of property
- List of heirs
- Real estate
- Personal property
- Minors' estates
- Appraisers' warrants
- Notice to heirs
- Notice of sales
- Notice to creditors
- Commission reports
- Decrees of distribution
- Dower rights
- Courtesy rights
- Private disbursement
- Guardians' final report
- Probate decrees
- Certificates of devize
- Assignments of real estate
- Order of distribution
- Decree of heirship
- Unrecorded wills
- Widows' allowances
- Orders to find heirs
- Sales documents
- Marriage settlements
- Changes of name
- Estate taxes
Please mail comments and suggestions to Susan Johnston at