November 29, 2019
Probate files, or probate packages as they used to be called since the completed file was folded and stored in an envelope or packet, are all of the records relating to the disposal of a deceased person’s estate. These records are usually filled with valuable genealogical information including lists of heirs, married names of female heirs, status of heirs (whether living or dead), guardianship papers for minor children and an inventory of the contents of an estate as well as reports listing the final disposition of the estate.
Finding probate files is usually quite straightforward, although it is important to remember that not every ancestor will have a probate file. It is estimated that about 25% of heads of household before 1900 had probates filed. A probate is only filed if a person has something of value to leave to heirs; this can be items such as land, livestock, crops in the field, household belonging such as furniture, kitchen utensils, money, stocks and bonds and other items. Before the Civil War, slaves were often included as part of an estate to be passed down to heirs. Some people who lived to old age may not have a probate since they frequently divided their belongings among their children and grandchildren before they died. Far fewer women than men left probates because in earlier times married women were not legally allowed to own property. Everything belonged to a woman’s husband and was his before and after her death. Unmarried women and widows sometimes did own property in their own right, and probates were filed for them.
Probates are usually filed at the county level in the county where the decedent lived, although a probate may also be filed in another county if the decedent owned property in that county. Probates are considered public records and as such are available to genealogists. In most cases the probate files may be found at the county courthouse. The court which had jurisdiction over probate matters may be called by various names such as Probate Court, the Equity Court, Court of Wills, County Court or Circuit Court, depending on the state in which the probate was filed. The Family Search Wiki (https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Probate_Records ) is a good place to find more information on the probate process and the name of the court which has jurisdiction in a particular state.
Within the last few years, many probate files have been digitized. Ancestry.com has a large collection of U.S. probate files; Family Search also has digitized probate files from various states and counties. Calling the county courthouse in the county where the probate was filed is another good research strategy since some courthouses will copy and mail out probate files; in other cases it may require an in-person visit or the hiring of a researcher to access probate files. In some cases, the courthouse may have sent older probate files to a larger repository such as the state archives. Again, the state archives will often copy and mail probate files for a fee.
Obtaining a copy of a probate file (make sure to request the entire file to ensure getting all possible information) is well worth the effort since these records were often kept long before birth and death records and can often provide information found nowhere else.
Researcher/Director at Large