November 15, 2019
Many years ago when I was a baby genealogist, I ran across the terms administrator and executor. I had no idea what they meant but was aware that they had something to do with wills and estates. As my genealogy education progressed, I learned that administrators and executors are the people appointed to oversee the distribution of a deceased person’s estate. Their functions are similar, but one deals with estates where the decedent leaves a will and one deals with estates where the decedent doesn’t leave a will. While the difference between an administrator and an executor is probably not terribly important to genealogists, the difference between the estate of someone who leaves a will and someone who doesn’t can make a big difference in the kinds of records that a genealogist will find.
Someone who wrote a will detailing how he/she wanted his estate to be distributed after his death is said to die “testate.” Someone who didn’t write a will dies “intestate.” While both kinds of estate distribution can reveal a great deal of information to genealogists, the two types of file do not contain identical information. Both testate and intestate probate files will include details such as an inventory of what the deceased person had to leave to his/her heirs and notices that were published in newspapers and elsewhere to let creditors know that they needed to present any claims on the estate before probate was closed. In addition, both will list heirs, albeit in a different manner. Someone who writes a will determines who will inherit his/her estate and what each heir will inherit and usually names an executor to carry out the terms of that will. While some people will name all of their heirs in a will, it’s not a requirement. Often some heirs are omitted from a will, either because of family estrangements or sometimes because the person writing the will has already settled lands or goods on some members of the family and doesn’t want to give them anything else. When a person writes a will, that person can even choose to leave nothing to his family members and leave everything to the local Cat Rescue facility if he wishes. Disinherited heirs can bring suit if they feel that their family member was not of sound mind or was unduly influenced when he wrote his will, but this can result in large legal fees that sometimes drain the assets of an estate until little remains.
Since one of the main reasons genealogists search out probate files is to identify family members of the decedent, this kind of will can be frustrating. For example, in one case I tracked down a will for a potential younger brother of my ancestor, hoping to be able to tie my ancestor into the family through the will since the younger brother was unmarried and would have had no heirs other than his siblings. Imagine my disappointment when I found the relevant probate file, and instead of naming siblings as heirs, the decedent willed everything he owned to the local Poor Farm in gratitude for them taking care of him in his old age. While this will tells me something about the dynamics of this family, it certainly didn’t help me figure out whether my ancestor was actually a sibling of the man who wrote the will.
The other type of probate file involves folks who did not write a will and died intestate. Genealogists are usually thrilled to find that their ancestors died intestate since in that case a local court will appoint an administrator to inventory an estate and make arrangements for its distribution to heirs. As part of his/her (an administrator or an executor can be either a man or a woman) responsibilities, an administrator is required to locate every heir of the deceased and identify his or her status. For example, if a man had ten children, but only eight of them are alive, the administrator needs to identify the eight living children and list their current place of residence and married name if any are married women. The two deceased children would only be identified if they had living heirs who would share in the estate. It does not matter whether the decedent was estranged from his heirs or whether he knew where they lived, the administrator is required to find all of them; this information can be very valuable to genealogists who may have lost track of married daughters or other heirs who have left an area.
Whether an ancestor died testate or intestate and had an administrator or an executor, a probate file for him or her is a great find and well worth searching out. Next week, I’ll write more about how to find probate files.
Researcher/Director at Large