Death records are one of the things that we want to find for each ancestor. However, there are times when that record doesn't exist. (Don't you hate it when an ancestor dies before that state started keeping death records'!)
If you can't find a death record and his or her tombstone hasn't been found or is illegible, take a look at his or her will. You can get at least an estimate of when he or she died.
John Douglass's will is included in the Pennsylvania, Wills and Probate Records, 1683-1993 collection. In the opening paragraph, he states that he's writing his will on the "thirtieth day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and six."
Will of John Douglass, Greene County, Pennsylvania, Will Book 1, page 51.
After his will, there is the notation of it being admitted into probate. George Morris, John Fordyce, and John Morris gave their oath to John Boreman, Register for the Probate of Wills, that they saw John Douglass sign the will and that what they presented was his last will and testament. This occurred on "the third day of March in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and six."
Greene County, Pennsylvania, Will Book 1, page 52.
Bracketing the Death Date
John Douglass had to be alive on 30 January 1806, as that's when he wrote the will. He was dead on or before 3 March 1806, since that's when his will was admitted to probate.
- He likely died closer to 3 March than to 30 January, as the probate process is usually started shortly after death.
- He probably didn't die on 3 March 1806. If he did, that means that on the same day he died, all three witnesses to his will got together, got his will, went to the courthouse, and had it admitted into probate. It could happen, but not very likely. It's more likely that John Douglass died a few days before.
How You Can Do This
Look for language in the will that says something like "On <date>, I <person writing the will> being of sound mind and body, do hereby record this, my last will and testament." That's the date the will was written. If the date isn't at the beginning of the will, like it is in John Douglass's will, look at the end of the will, just before the signature. Sometimes it will be phrased as, "I <person writing the will> do set my hand on this <date>."
Then look immediately after the will for the notation that it was admitted into probate. Look for language like we see in John Douglass's case. "On <date>, before me <name and position in the court> took testimony of the witnesses of <deceased>." That is the date the will was admitted into probate. This is the last possible date the person could have been alive.
You will find wills that were written several years before it was admitted to probate. In all likelihood, the person died closer to the probate date than the will's date.
When you're looking at wills, look for those two dates: the date the will was written and the date it was admitted into probate. With those two dates, you'll have narrowed down when the person died.