Probate Records Lesson


Probate Records

Probate records are very important in identifying family relationships and verifying death dates. However, there are more to probate records than most people think. Probate is a term used to denote that some type of action has come to court and been 'probated'. Most people think this refers to wills and estates, which is true. However, it is not limited to wills and estates. Following is a list of different types of probate records:

  • Estate Proceedings
    1. Bills of Sale
    2. Inventories
    3. Proof of heirs
    4. Statements by Executors or Executrix
    5. Probate of Wills
    6. Probate of In-testate estates (those without wills)
  • Guardianship Proceedings
    1. Used when minor children are left on their own after the death of a parent, usually their father.
    2. Useful for following change of names

Probate records can be very useful. Following is a list of types of different information you might find in a normal 'docket' - refers to the physical grouping of paper related to that case, as well as to the 'number' given to the case.

  • Wills
    1. List of heirs and relationships (often give marriage and birth dates of spouse and children, and children's married name)
    2. Place of land ownership (a place to start for looking up land records)
    3. Name of spouse or past-spouses (Some men made arrangements to take care of deceased spouses gravesites and children)
    4. Place of abode or where they came from (might give the place they originally came from or another state or county to continue searching)
    5. Lists of slaves (Common in southern states before 1865)
    6. Lists of material goods, including land, houses, farm animals, heirlooms which might give clues to origin such as "Old English bedstead". Will also indicate the deceased 'wealth' and standing in the community.
    7. Names of executor or executrix (man or woman) who is usually a close friend, a relative, or a banker.
    8. Names of witnesses, usually good friends or neighbors.
    9. Date of will and date of probate give you an idea of where they lived when it was made and when they died. Wills were usually probated within 60 days of the person's death.
    10. The actual signature of the deceased. (Might indicate he or she is an educated person.)
  • Guardianship papers
    1. Names of children
    2. Names of guardian and possible relationship
    3. Children's parentage
    4. Children's age and birthdates and birthplaces
    5. Date of parents death
    6. Place children or parents lived.
  • Other estate proceedings
    1. Miscellaneous debts owed by deceased
    2. Names and addresses of people he did business with
    3. Charities and organizations they might have left money to or owed money to.

Probate records are usually found in the county clerks office. Indexes are usually available from the earliest dates of the county's creation, i.e. Jones County Iowa was founded in 1846 and records start in 1848, along with marriage records for that county.

There will be separate indexes for guardianships and wills and estate proceedings. Make certain you seek out the original 'docket'. They may be filed in metal cabinets and bound with strings in the basement somewhere. These are invaluable and a normal estate might include as many as 20 different types of documents. Be certain to ask for them if you can't find what you want. Also be aware that if counties were formed from older counties, you may need to search the original county clerk's office as well.

Practice Lesson:

Choose the county that your ancestor supposedly died in and locate the address of the county clerk's office. If at all possible, go personally and ask to search the indexes yourself. If this is not possible, write and ask the county clerk for a specific thing such as: the will or estate proceedings for Mr. John Smith who died in 1899 in Jones County, Iowa. If a reference is found, they will let you know what the cost is for zeroxing it. If they can't do the search, they may recommend contacting the local genealogical or historical society.

If you are able to go to the courthouse yourself, check the indexes for any reference to your ancestor. There may be several references for every single proceeding of the case. Some estates had yearly reports made on them for 10 years! Don't want to miss anything that might lead to better information. Add the information you find, and the sources and years you've searched to your research log and family group records.

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