Probate records hold a wealth of information about our ancestors. But when researching these records, do you just limit yourself to the will and inventory?
Do you neglect all of the other documents that are part of the probate process? All parts of the probate process hold potential clues.
The Probate Process
Estates where a will was written are referred to as testate. Estates where there was no will are referred to as intestate. Depending upon the time and place, these actions may be recorded across several separate bound volumes. Here’s a breakdown of the probate process:
Petition: The process typically starts with a petition to the court to start the probate process. This may be a relative or a creditor.
Hearing: A hearing date is set by the court to prove the will. In the case where there was no will, the court appoints an administrator. The hearing date will usually be published in the local newspaper. This gives interested parties a chance to have their say.
If no one contests, the will is proved and ordered recorded. Remember that original wills were retained by the court. Always try to find original wills where they survive.
Relinquishments/Renunciations: These documents record an executor or administrator relinquishing (i.e., turning down) their duties. I found a renunciation for the estate one of my Prather ancestors. That record listed every living heir and where they lived.
Bonds: If a will is proved, the executor posted bond. The bond guarantees his/her performance of duties associated with the estate. If there was no will, the administrator posted bond. The value of the bond is usually in accordance with the wealth of the estate.
I have found bonds to be extremely valuable, especially in the naming of the individuals who served as securities for those bonds. Those names offer leads for family or close connections. Usually the court will also approve a notice to creditors to be published in a local newspaper.
Letters Issued: Once the bonds are accepted, the court issues Letters Testamentary (Letters of Administration if intestate). This is essentially the the court’s authority in writing.
Inventory: Usually the court will appoint three disinterested parties to inventory the estate. These are common records for those of us doing slave research.
Make sure that you search several years ahead of the inventory. Additions and subtractions are often made to the inventory.
But don’t neglect the other items in the inventory. The household items can be powerful measures of social history for the family. It can provide some insight into what kind of life an enslaved ancestor may have led.
Accounts and Sales: I can’t stress the value of this part of probate. Depending upon the size of the estate, some probate cases lasted many years. If there were minor children, the probate could last until they reached adulthood.
During that time, periodic accounting is made to the court by the executor or administrator about the financial status of the estate.
Don’t overlook accounts and sales with regard to slave research. You can find slave sales and sometimes the name of the purchaser.
Accounts are often numbered. For example, the probate book may refer to the action as the “First account,” “Second Account,” etc. Always pay close attention to the names of the people who are purchasing items from the estate.
Petitions for Sale: Executors/Administrators may petition the court to sell real estate. These requests usually include the reason why. Many estates going broke needed to sell land. Another common reason is that the land can’t easily be equally divided among heirs.
Distributions: This document records the distribution of the estate to the heirs, after payment of all debt. It’s one of the most valuable records for genealogists since it often reveals relationships. Slave distributions are important to find for those researching enslaved ancestors.
Maryland also has probate books entitled “Docket of Administrations.” These bound records each individual who had an estate administered. The document summarized all the actions in the case by book, page and date. Other states also have record books such as this, so seek them out.
Take full advantage of the wealth of information available in all of the probate process–don’t just limit yourself to wills and inventories. You never know what you might find!
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.