When someone dies, a variety of records are created to deal with the distribution of what they leave behind, known as their estate. All of these records are broadly referred to as "probate records", though in its most strict definition "probate" only applies when the records include a will*. Like other records created after an individual's death, such as obituaries, probate records can provide rich biographical details that can tell a more full story than a record for a single life event, such as a birth record.
What You Can Discover in Wills and Other Probate Records
Whether the deceased individual left behind only a few items of personal property or a sizable estate, probate records often include inventories of personal possessions, information about any properties and residences, and the names of family members.
Probate records can be organized into "probate packets", which consist of loose paper records gathered together. In other cases, the records may be parsed out in separate sets of records, with wills in one book, petitions in another, guardianships in another, and bonds in another.
If you're looking to explore probate records, here's a list of common probate records and what each could help you discover about your family.
Wills: A will is a record created by an individual, which has the instructions for how they want their estate distributed when they pass. Typically wills have descriptions of the person's land and property. They may also include the names of heirs, witnesses, and guardians. If you're looking into the will of someone in your family tree, you may even find your ancestor's signature.
Inventories: From the cost of bed linens to the number of cows, a probate inventory lets you see the belongings your ancestor owned and their value. You can learn about deeply personal items they had, like watches, photos, and shaving tools, so you can form a more complete picture of your family member and their life. You can also see how their estate compared to others in their community.
Petitions: A petition must be filed in court to begin the probate process. The deceased individual's heirs are usually the ones to do this. Petitions often include the names, residences, and relationships of the heirs.
Guardianship and Orphans' Court Records: Guardians are court-appointed individuals responsible for looking after the interests of minor children. Often they are either close friends of the family or relatives. "Orphans" as noted in court records might have a living parent who is their appointed guardian. These records often include the names of the living spouse, the children and their ages, and also their residences.
Bonds: An estate bond is like an insurance policy that the person appointed to distribute the assets of the estate according to the documented wishes of the deceased (the executor) will comply with those wishes. The executor posts the bond, and if they engage in any negligent or intentionally bad acts, the persons posting the bond would be liable to compensate the beneficiaries. Bonds are interesting documents for family history, because if an executor or administrator posted a large bond, it could be an indication that they were close to the deceased and were potentially extended family.
Tips for Searching Wills & Probates on Ancestry®
Ancestry® is home to the largest online collection of documented wills and probate records for the United States. You'll find records for all 50 U.S. states spanning more than 300 years, from 1668 to 2005. That's more than 170 million documents available for browsing.
Remember that not everyone left a will, but that doesn't mean you can't find other records. For a variety of reasons, your ancestor may not have left a will. But it doesn't mean there is no estate file. And the records that were left behind can sometimes be as revealing&mdashand in some cases more revealing&mdashthan a will.
Knowing where and when your ancestor died can make your search easier. If you have a general idea of when and where your ancestor died, your probate record searches will be more successful. You can find these details in records such as newspaper death notices and when available, death certificates.
If you find one probate record for your ancestor, you may have to keep searching for more. Probate records vary by state&mdashand even by year within the same state. Sometimes a probate packet will include multiple documents, such as the will, petition, and inventory. But in other cases, pieces of the probate are kept separately, not in one neat packet; so you'll have to piece together the full probate packet by conducting multiple searches.
You may have more success finding probate records for certain family members. It's likely that not every single ancestor left behind property (or debts) that required the creation of probate records. While men who were property owners are much more likely to have probate records, don't overlook the possibility that some of the women in your family tree may have left a probate as well.
Probate records could be incredibly helpful when conducting African American family history research. While it's possible an ancestor may not have a probate record because they owned no property or they were formerly enslaved, free people of color did have wills and probates while the enslaved were mentioned in the wills of free people (Black or white). In the case of those who were enslaved, additional research will need to be done to determine who their former slave owner was and, where possible, to locate their names mentioned within the owner's will or probate.
Search Wills and Probate Records on Ancestry
Probate records are some of the most valuable documents you'll come across while exploring your family history. Even though you might not have known your ancestors, you can discover the people and possessions they cared about and perhaps learn a little more about their character and personality.
Get started on your search of wills and probate records on Ancestry today.
*When a person dies, they can decide who inherits their property by leaving a will (known as testate). If they don't leave a will, common law determines who inherits (intestate).