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Guide 2 Genealogy   >   Sources   >   Probate Records

 

Using Probate Records in Genealogy


Wills, inventories, letters of administration, and guardianships are all types of probate records, and all are powerful tools of genealogical research. Their value in genealogy is that the focus of probate is the family; beneficiaries named in a will are usually a spouse, children, grandchildren, in-laws, or siblings. Nowhere else, except perhaps in vital records and deeds, is proof of family relationships established with equal precision.

In addition to genealogical details, probate documents also contain much information about the living arrangements, wealth, family attitudes, religious beliefs, education, literacy, and civic mindedness of our ancestors. More so than any other types of historical documents, except perhaps diaries or autobiographies, probate records are a "window" into the past, through which we can catch see our ancestors' family relationships and lifestyles.

Probate records can be divided into two basic categories:
  1. Those of people who died testate - that is, leaving wills.

  2. Those of people who died intestate that is leaving no written instructions as to how their property should be distributed at death
There are three basic types of wills:-
  1. An "attested" will is prepared for the testator. In Colonial days this was often done by local magistrates, and in recent times by lawyers.

  2. A "holographic" will is actually written by the testator himself.

  3. A "nuncupative" wil contains deathbed wishes communicated to and recorded by a witness present at the bedside.
All three types of wills must be signed by witnesses. Of the three types, the attested will is the most common, although in the Colonial and Early National periods you may also find some holographic wills and a few nuncupative ones as well.

Of course, sometimes people died "intestate" without leaving a will or naming heirs. In these cases, the questions are who inherited the property, what are intestacy records, and how can such records be used in genealogy.

When a person died intestate, his property was administered by the court according to state or colonial statutes and customs of the time. Once the court (usually the county court) was informed that an individual of sufficient property had died intestate, it appointed an administrator, someone who would oversee the preparation of an estate "inventory" of real and personal property and work with the court in determining beneficiaries.

Intestacy law in early America was broadly based on English precedent. However, although primogeniture prevailed by law in English intestacy cases, that practice did not always prevail in America:-
  • In the New England colonies (except for a period in Rhode Island), as well as in Pennsylvania and Delaware, "partible" division of real estate among all children, with the eldest son receiving a "double portion", was the law in intestacy cases.

  • In many of the other colonies, particularly in the South, although primogeniture was the law, partible inheritance again was often the custom.

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