Back to the Basics with Probate Records – Part 1
Have you explored probate records in the search for your family? Or do they sound too difficult to tackle? With the digitization of microfilm on FamilySearch and indexes available on Ancestry, probate records are much easier to access than in the past. With an estimated 25% of the United States population leaving a will and an estimated 50% mentioned in a will, why wouldn’t you check out these valuable records?
When should you turn to probate records? At the beginning, middle, or end of your research? Because the possibility of valuable genealogical information is high in this record group, I often list a probate search at the beginning of my research plan.
What kind of information can you expect to find in a probate record?
- An individual’s exact death date
- Names of the family members
- Family relationships
- Names of spouses of children
- Adoption or guardianship of minor children or dependents
- Worth of the property and land holdings
- Evidence of occupation, religion, or military service
Where can you find probate records?
Probate records are kept on the county level, so once you’ve determined the county your ancestor might have died, you’ll have a good idea of where to look. Ancestry has indexed probate records by state so if you’re not sure about a specific location, a search in the statewide database might pull up your ancestor’s case file. Probate can show up in unexpected locations so don’t discount a record until you have looked at it.
It’s very important to realize that only the main individual is listed in the index, not the many family members who are listed in a will, administration paper, or final settlement. It is up to you as the researcher to dig into the case file and discover the information that may be key to your research.
A case study – the probate of Thomas Porch
I’ll use the case study of Thomas Porch of Chariton County, Missouri to show what is available and how to access it. I had located Thomas and his family on the 1860 census of Chariton County, but he was missing on the 1870 census. I found three of his children in two different households in 1870 and wondered if he had died between 1860 and 1870. Sure enough, checking the Ancestry database, “Missouri Wills and Probate Records, 1766-1988,” I found a Thomas Porch in the Chariton County, Missouri Will Book index. Notice how many pages are referenced in the three different entries for the estate of Thomas Porch in the image below.
I began going through the digitized microfilm of the will book, locating each page noted in the index. Then I noticed something strange. The index listed an entry of “Porch Thos – heirs of B 729, but the digital images of the book skipped from 727-730. Had a page been missed in the microfilming? I viewed the same microfilm on FamilySearch and sure enough, the missing page was still missing: the page listing the heirs of Thomas Porch.
Reasoning that the original will book would still be at the county courthouse, I called the Chariton County Courthouse and was directed to the Circuit Clerk over probate. Explaining my dilemma, the clerk took my phone number and went on the hunt. A few minutes later she called me, hoping she’d located the correct book. We compared the names on page 727 and realized this was exactly the right book. She took a photo with her cell phone and texted it to me. Within thirty minutes I had a photograph of the exact image I needed and it listed four of the children of Thomas Porch that were on the 1860 census, positively identifying this as the correct family.
Steps to locate a probate record
- Start with indexed probate records on Ancestry. Remember, only the main individual is indexed so you may want to do some browsing in probate of individuals with your ancestor’s surname. They may be relatives. In the example above, only Thomas Porch was indexed. His heirs named as Jasper, Sarah, Martha, Margaret were not indexed.
- Note the page numbers in the index for your ancestor.
- Click through the images until you get to the correct page number.
- Create a source citation for the image with the relevant information and include the image number. I also include a link to the image in my research log for easy access later.
- If you don’t find your ancestor initially in the index, remember as with any index, the name may have been misread. You can browse the indexes at the beginning of the county will books, generally alphabetical, for your ancestor. Find these books by using the FamilySearch Catalog.
- Enter the name of the state or county in the “Place” search box. Don’t type “county.” For example type “Chariton” not “Chariton County.” Select from the options that will pop up your correct county and state. Many states have counties with the same name, so select carefully.
- Click on the blue search box and you will be taken to a list of the holdings for that location.
- Scroll down to “Probate records” and look for a database with the county probate court as the author. Clicking that database will take you to a screen where you can view the digitized microfilm. Now you have two options.
- Click the red notice that probate records are available online, then click “browse through________ images.” You’ll be given several options for counties. Select the county of interest, then you’ll see the list of microfilm to search.
- Skip the red notice that probate records are available online, and instead scroll down to the specific microfilm. The screenshot below shows a general index to the county probate records as well as individual volumes that generally also have an indexes located at the beginning. You can access the microfilm by clicking on the camera icon shown at the far right.
- Examine each set of records where your ancestor might be listed. Each county organized their record books differently and you’ll want to track down each entry that might apply.
- Take good research notes as you’re searching the probate records. In your research log, note exactly what microfilm you viewed, the page numbers, the image numbers, etc.
Now that you’ve located a will, estate case file, or other probate documents, what do you do next? Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post where you’ll learn about the various types of probate documents and how you can use them in your research. Once you’ve learned the ins and outs of probate research, you’ll have opened a whole new window of possibilities.
Best of luck in your research efforts!