Probate Records For Genealogy: Basics to Know Before Your Research the Deceased


Genealogists and lawyers do probate research to find heirs and prove their right to an inheritance. Since probate researchers seek out next-kin through tree building and exploring wills and previous probated estates, we're going to dive into how these court records can help us find clues for our genealogy research questions.


Watch this research plan development process in action in this video.

What are US Probate Records?


According to FamilySearch, “Probate records are court records created after an individual’s death that relate to a court’s decisions regarding the distribution of the estate to the heirs or creditors and the care of any dependents.”


What Can You Learn From Probate Records?


Depending on when and where your ancestors lived, you may discover many rich genealogical details in probate records.

  • Identify spouse(s) and relatives

  • Death of other relatives

  • Clues for occupation and wealth

  • Citizenship

  • Residence(s)

  • Property

  • Adoptions

  • Lunacy / Incapacity

  • Signatures

  • military service

  • religious affiliation

  • scandals!

Surely more details may find their way into your ancestor's probate records. You won't' know until you look.


Steps for Researching Probate Records for Genealogy


How and where you research probate records varies from location to location. However, these basics steps keep you focused while searching these court records.


1. Know the County Where Your Ancestor Lived


You will often find probate records filed in each state where an ancestor owned land.


Know the name of the county at the time your ancestor’s estate was probated. Boundaries change. Probate records typically will not migrate to the newly formed county. Check out this animation of state boundary changes from Map of Us for New Jersey. (Other states appear on this website as well.) on the MapofUs website).


2: Know the Probate Laws for Your Ancestor's State


If you don’t understand the laws governing inheritance when your ancestor died, you will miss relevant brick wall busting clues. Two primary sets of inheritance laws impacted your ancestor depending upon whether they wrote a will or not.

  • Intestacy laws affect persons dying without a will. The statutes vary enormously from one country to another, and in the US, they also differ from state to state. These laws govern which family members can legally inherit particular estate portions when an individual dies without a will.

  • Testacy Laws dictate how the estate for a person dying with a will is probated.


When reviewing the statutes, you're looking for the following:

  • Who had the right to file?

  • Which location had legal jurisdiction for a property?

  • What was the order of preference for heirs?

  • Does the eldest son inherit all the land unless a will states otherwise, known as primogeniture?

  • What are dower rights?

  • Does the widow inherit a ½, a ⅓, or the entire estate?

  • When a female inherits, does her portion automatically transfer to her husband?

  • What are the land transfer laws?

  • Will an indebted estate have to force a sale on a mortgaged home?

  • Can an heir assume the mortgage of an inherited parcel of land?

  • What are the estate tax laws?

  • How might these laws impact decisions before and after the death of an ancestor?

Other statutes may impact your ancestor's probate case. Review the relevant laws based on whether your ancestor left an executable will or not.


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How to Find the Probate Statues


You can find many historic statues online using Google Search, Google Books, the Internet Archive, state archives, or GenFiles.


Use the following online search terms:

  • [state] [statues] [year]

  • Ohio Statutes 1890

Find the statues pre-dating your ancestor’s death date. Those are the laws in effect at the time of their probate.



If your ancestor died intestate in Ohio, the order of descent and distribution would go first to his children. If no children are living, the estate passes to the "husband or wife, relict of such intestate during his or her natural life."


3. Research Probate Court Record Indexes


Befriend the probate court records. They are your path toward the resources you most want. The indexes may be segmented by probate document type or in one pivotal book. Be sure to check all probate book indexes for your ancestors in a specific location.



Sample probate record index


4. Find the Appropriate Probate Records


Probate records aren’t always easy to track down. You may find only a small percentage of searchable historic probate records.


Be prepared to browse through online images or send requests to probate courts for the full probate packet or case file.


5. Review the Appropriate Probate Records


Once you find probate records, you have to analyze the documents carefully. You should transcribe the documents and extract the details into your genealogy research plan and family tree programs/websites.

  • Be careful that you review what the records state directly and what you can infer from information omitted.

  • Pay particular attention to witnesses and the persons making purchases during estate sales.

  • Make a note of any disputes and be prepared to examine additional court records for the proceedings.


If you want your own genealogy research plan template, get a copy of my Research Plan Template and print it out or use it online.



Learn More About Probate Record Research


Admittedly, I need more training in probate record research. For decades, I have not found any of my ancestors wealthy enough to have an estate to probate. My brick wall ancestor, John Townley, provided the opportunity to explore these records further. I continue to learn something new every day.


I'm currently watching these training videos:

I invite you to gain more training on probate records whenever you attend conferences, webinars, or society meetings.



Additional "Using Probate Records for Clues " Show Notes


Continue learning about probate records and other resources for your genealogy quest through the following blog posts and videos.




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