New York Probate Records
Estate records have been handled in New York in the Surrogate’s Court since 1787 when a system of county Surrogate’s courts was established. Prior to that time most estates were handled in New York City, the capital until 1797. Abstracts of most of the earlier records are found in Abstracts of Wills on File in the Surrogate’s Office, County of New York, 1665–1800, in volumes 25–41 of the New-York Historical Society Collections (New York, 1892–1909), usually referred to as “New York Wills,” and in Berthold Fernow, comp. and ed., Calendar of Wills on File and Recorded in the Offices of the Court of Appeals, of the County Clerk at Albany and of the Secretary of State, 1626–1836 (1896; reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1967). Only the first of these includes letters of administration, but both contain errors (the former set actually includes two volumes of corrections and additions, and Fernow’s work omits hundreds of wills, for which one should consult the complete, typewritten index at the New York State Archives and State Library). Also, there is some overlap between these sources, so both should be consulted. (The New-York Historical Society series is available on CD-ROM from Heritage Books of Bowie, Md.) Other material has been published in abstract form in Kenneth Scott, Genealogical Data from New York Administration Bonds, 1753–1799, volume 10 of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society Collections (New York, 1969); Genealogical Data from Further New York Administration Bonds, 1791–1798, vol. 11 of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society Collections (New York, 1971); Genealogical Data from Administration Papers in the New York State Court of Appeals in Albany (New York: National Society of Colonial Dames of the State of New York, 1972); Records of the Chancery Court, Province and State of New York: Guardianships, 1691–1815 (New York: Holland Society of New York, 1971); and, with James A. Owre, Genealogical Data from Inventories Of New York Estates, 1666–1825 (New York: New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, 1970). Scott also published articles on New York wills, guardianships, and inventories in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 51:90; 54:98, 246; 55:119; and 56:51. Original wills ca. 1665 to 1738 are available on microfilm at the state archives, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, and elsewhere; most filed (original) and recorded wills prior to 1787 are at the state archives (although most estates were apparently settled without going through probate at all).
Before 1787, some wills were recorded in the counties and occasionally in town records. See Gustave Anjou, Ulster County, N.Y. Probate Records, 2 vols. (New York: the author, 1906), covering records 1663 to 1766 and 1792 to 1827, and the two volumes by William S. Pelletreau, Early Long Island Wills of Suffolk County, 1691–1703, and Early Wills of Westchester County New York from 1664 to 1784 (New York: Francis P. Harper, 1897, 1898). Pelletreau’s former work does not include those in Suffolk County sessions records (for which see Thomas W. Cooper, The Records of the Court of Sessions of Suffolk County in the Province of New York 1670–1688 [Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1993]) or a few in early county deed books. Better abstracts of the Westchester County wills are found in Pelletreau’s Abstracts of Wills on File (see also below for Westchester County). Other early New York will abstracts have been published in The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, such as those for Kings County, mostly from deeds (1684–1719), in volume 47; Montgomery County (1787–1831), in volumes 56–57; Tioga County (1799–1847), in volumes 57–58; Queens County wills from deeds (1683–1744), in volume 65; Dutchess County wills in volume 61; and Westchester County wills (1787–99), in volumes 55–57 and 67. For the period 1688 to 1690, New York was part of the Dominion of New England, and during that time estates valued at over £50 were to be probated in Boston. Seventeen wills of New York residents were brought to Boston, and abstracts of these are found in volumes 12 and 13 of The American Genealogist.
Beginning in 1830, a New York law required that the petition for probate include a list of each legal heir—whether or not there was a will, and whether or not heirs were named in the will—their relationship to the deceased, and their residences. This is often the single most important document in an estate file, but it is not generally found in the record books.
Most counties have consolidated indexes to all estate matters including wills, administrations, guardianships, and so forth. In some counties, however, the types of estates may be indexed separately. Likewise, all the documents pertaining to a particular estate may not be filed together but separately according to type of action such as bonds, accounts, and inventories, and thereunder by date of filing. Many counties have particularly separated the original wills—many early ones are not on file—from the rest of the documents pertaining to an estate. Some early letters of administration give the relationship of the administrator to the deceased, and some early letters of guardianship provide the date of birth of the minor.
A New York law permits clerks of the surrogate court to impose a stiff fee (currently $90) to search for an estate over twenty-five years old (Surrogate’s Procedure Act Section 2402, item 14), and the cost of copies of the documents can be extra. Some indexes to wills, administrations, and guardianships, and some abstracts of these records for many counties can be found in the state library, the New York Public Library, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, and in other libraries. Many such indexes and abstracts were prepared by the late Gertrude A. Barber of New York City or by one of her sisters, Ray C. Sawyer and Minnie Cowen. The indexes and abstracts serve as guides only and should be verified in the original record books and files. Abstracts of New York state wills to about 1830 with an all-name index by W. A. D. Eardeley at the Brooklyn Historical Society are also helpful. Abstracts of wills and letters of administration and guardianship have also been published in Tree Talks and other journals.
Two excellent guides for New York estates should be consulted: Harry Macy, Jr., “New York Probate Records Before 1787,” The NYG&B Newsletter 2 (1991): 11-15; and Gordon L. Remington, New York State Probate Records: A Genealogist’s Guide to Testate and Intestate Records (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2002). See also the state archives’ Information Leaflet #3 on Probate Records, available on the archives’ website.