Guardianship: A Misunderstood Probate Term
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If you've searched in the probate collections and skipped over a result for a guardianship because you know one of the parents was still alive, you should go back and look at that record. Guardianship is an often-misunderstood concept in probate.

What Guardianship Is and Is Not

Guardianship is when the court appoints someone to represent the legal interests of a child or an adult who has been deemed incapable of representing themselves. Guardianship is NOT custody. While it is possible that a guardian took custody of his or her ward, that was not the purpose of the guardianship. The purpose was that the child (or incompetent adult) had a legal interest in something and the court named someone to look after those interests.

A Parent Could Still Be Living

Many people skip guardianship records because one of the parents was still living at the time. A child did not need to be an orphan to need a guardian. All that was needed was that they had a legal interest that needed protecting. It isn't uncommon to find children with guardians even with the mother was still living. Depending upon the time and place, a woman didn't have the legal standing herself to represent even her own children. In addition, a woman might have declined being named guardian either because of the norms of her community or because she didn't have the time and resources to carry out the legal duties.

Using Guardianship Records

Guardianship records, at a minimum, include the name of the guardian and the ward (the child or incompetent adult). It is common to find:
  • Relationship to the deceased (if the guardianship is part of an estate)
  • Date the guardianship ended, which can signify either the settlement of the legal interests or the child reaching age of majority
  • References to related court records
  • Names of people providing surety or bond; these people might be related
The records themselves are found in any number of places, depending upon the court. For example, they could be in a separate guardianship docket, contained in the estate papers, or listed in the "complete record." Below is the guardianship record for Charlotte Dolke in Defiance County, Ohio, 28 June 1862: Guardianship of Charlotte Dolke From Ohio, Wills and Probate Records, 1786-1998. Defiance County: Administrators, Guardians, Executors Bonds and Letters, 1860-1905. (Click to enlarge.) From this we find some valuable information, along with some avenues of research to explore:
  • Michael Schultz was appointed guardian "of Charlotte Dolke, minor child of Julius Dolke deceased, late of Defiance County." (Note that is says "child of" and not just "heir of." This proves the relationship. This record is especially valuable considering that Ohio didn't keep civil birth records during this time period.)
  • Michael Schultz is the guardian. Is he related to Charlotte Dolke' The same can be asked about Ludwig Spengler and Gustav Kreiderweis, who along with Schultz, provided the bond.
  • The guardianship is made 28 June 1862; Julius Dolke is listed as "deceased," which gives us one date to frame when he died.
  • Should look for Julius's estate and land records.
When you find the guardianship for one child, be sure to look for others. In this case, in addition to Charlotte, there is a guardianship for Julius Dolke, "minor child of Julius Dolke deceased, late of Defiance County." Michael Schultz was also his guardian. (If someone else had been young Julius's guardian, we would ask again if that person was somehow related to the family.)


When you're looking in probate, don't discount a guardianship just because you know one of the parents was still living at the time. Those guardianship records can have wonderful information about relationships and leads for further research.