New Jersey Probate Records

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This entry was originally written by Roger D. Joslyn, CG, FUGA, FGBS, FASG for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

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In New Jersey, the county court with jurisdiction over estates is called the Surrogate’s Court (where the modern petition for probate is called the “complaint”). A typical “Surrogate’s General Index,” however, refers to docket books, where a summary of the action on an estate is entered, with reference to the estate file and to the record volumes. Depending on the action, some information will be found in orphans’ court records. Also with the county Surrogate (and usually with the county clerk as well) are records of divisions or partitions of lands that include descriptions and often maps showing how the real property of a person who died intestate was divided among his or her heirs. These records have been published for the following counties: Essex (1793–1881), Middlesex (1780–1870), Morris (1785–1907), Somerset and Hunterdon (1809–1904), Sussex (1789–1918), and Warren (1825–1946). See also Judith B. Cronk, Intestates and Others from the Orphans Court Books for Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1785–1906 (Baltimore: Clearfield Co., Inc., 2002).

In New Jersey, original wills and inventories up through 1952 are on file at the New Jersey State Archives. At the state level, inventories are rare after 1900. Copies of estate packets can be ordered from the state archives by mail for $5 each. The earlier of these records are identified through Index of Wills, Inventories, Etc. In the Office of the Secretary of State Prior to 1901, 3 vols. (1912–13), reprinted with the inadequate title New Jersey Index of Wills (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1969). This set is arranged by county and then alphabetically by name of the estate, with separate sections for unrecorded wills and wills proved in the prerogative court (which had jurisdiction over estates with property in more than one county and handled appeals for contested estates). The wills for 1901 to 1952 are indexed on cards at the state archives. Each estate has a number that relates to the file at the state archives, where these records can be examined on microfilm. Note that these indexes do not cover estate records in the county Surrogate’s Courts, which are more extensive and should not be overlooked, especially for intestate estates and guardianships that might not be in the state index. Lee Smeal and Ronald Vern Jackson, eds., Index to New Jersey wills, 1689–1890, the testators [sic] (Salt Lake City: Accelerated Indexing Systems, 1979) is a comprehensive index to 1901, alphabetical for the entire state, but is not without errors. The records in Trenton, which for the 1700s to 1804 also include some other estate papers such as administration bonds, accounts, and guardianships, were abstracted and published up through the year 1817 in the “New Jersey Archives” first series, volumes 23, 30, and 32 to 42. These should be checked against the original records for accuracy, but are useful for their every-name indexes (which do not, however, include the alphabetically arranged names of the decedents or wards). From 1953, original wills and inventories are filed with the Superior Court Records Management Center, 171 Jersey St., P.O. Box 967, Trenton, NJ 08625-0967.

A law of 1784 established orphans’ courts, with jurisdiction over estate matters, which until that time had been the responsibility of the prerogative court. Surrogate’s courts were established in 1804, but action on estates should also be checked in orphans’ court records.

If an estate is not found in the indexes mentioned above, there may still be some record of it at the county level. The recorded wills and inventories, as well as the original and recorded bonds, accounts, guardianships, and other estate papers, will be found in the Surrogate’s Court. Many of these county records have been microfilmed and are available at the state archives. Some colonial New Jersey estates may not be found either in Trenton or in the counties because they were proved in New York, Pennsylvania, or Delaware; conversely, some estates for these adjacent colonies were proved in New Jersey.

The Gloucester County Historical Society has published some estate material for southern New Jersey, including three works by Stanley H. Craig: Genealogical Data from Cumberland County, New Jersey, Wills; Salem County Wills Recorded in the Office of the Surrogate at Salem, New Jersey; and Petitions for Guardians from the Minutes of the Salem County, New Jersey, Orphans’ Court (Woodbury, N.J., 1981, 1986), which should be checked against the original records for accuracy. This society also published Doris Cole Rogers’s Gloucester County Wills, 1818–1836, and Gloucester County Wills, 1836–1846, vol. 2 (Woodbury, N.J., 1988, 1994). Other published probate records include Phyllis B. D’Autrechy, comp., More Records of Old Hunterdon County, ed. by Roxanne K. Carkhuff, 2 vols. (Flemington, N.J.: Hunterdon County Historical Society, 1998, 2000), covering various county Surrogate’s records (1785–1876) and abstracts of wills, inventories, and letters of administration (1818–25); and small installments for Monmouth County in that county’s Genealogical Society’s Monmouth Connection.

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