Historically, since the first permanent settlement, there has never been a time in North America when people did not make wills or when the estates of those who failed to do so were not handled by a court appointed for that purpose to ensure that the rightful heirs–the legal heirs–became the heirs in fact.1
The Value of Probate Records
We have established that land was very important to our Pennsylvania German ancestors and we learned how to find land records. Probate records were created as a natural result of land ownership. When someone died, their estate needed to be distributed among their heirs. Passing their land down to their children was very important to Pennsylvania Germans.
Probate records are genealogically valuable for a few reasons, especially when researching Pennsylvania German ancestors. First, probate records predate many other record types and might be one of the only records that can be found for individuals during this time period. Second, they often state the names of family members and their relationships. Third, although a person’s death date is often not stated in the records, the time the probate was granted gives an approximate date of death for the decedent. In addition, witnesses, executors, and administrators of the estates of the deceased are often family members and friends. Once again, it must be emphasized that studying these individuals is especially important when researching Pennsylvania German ancestors.
Although probate records are valuable, it is important to remember that probate records don’t exist for every individual. In fact, it is estimated that “prior to 1900, only about 10% of persons created a will and only about 25% of estates were probated, regardless of whether or not there was a will.”2
The Probate Process and the Resulting Records
Understanding the probate process helps genealogists learn what types of records would have been created as our ancestors’ estates were settled after their deaths. The most basic thing to understand about the probate process is that when a person died intestate that meant he or she did not leave a will. Testate meant that the decedent left a will.
The probate process was similar whether there was a will or not, and records were created with each step in the process. Some of the main record types are listed below, although a number of other receipts, petitions, and more might have been created during the process. The entire process might have taken years to complete.
- When someone died, a petition was filed by the executor or executrix if there was a will, and by the widow, another family member, or interested party if the decedent died intestate. This petition let the probate court know that the person had died and that the estate should enter probate.
- If the person left a will, the witnesses testified in court that the decedent was of a sound mind when he or she wrote and signed the will (acknowledgment of witnesses). If nobody appeared to contest the will, the will was then considered valid or proved. If it was not proved valid the probate matter was considered an intestate case.
- The executor of a will was then granted Letters Testamentary that would allow him to proceed with the distribution of the estate. If there was no will, the court appointed an administrator and issued Letters of Administration.
- The executor or administrator hired two or three unbiased individuals to take an inventory of the estate. The inventory included a list of all personal belongings of the decedent. Items were then sold, often to family members. This resulted in what was known as a Vendue List. Vendue is another word for a public auction. The FAN club comes into play again here. Make note of and identify who the people were that bought items during the estate sale. They could hold clues that will help further your research.
- The executor or administrator paid debts owed by the estate and collected money from those who owed the decedent. He kept records of these transactions, resulting in receipts and accounts.
- When all bills were paid and money collected, the estate was then distributed to the heirs (Estate Distribution). This was done according to the will if there was one, and if not, according to the laws of the state. In Pennsylvania, the widow was given one-third dower right, with the remaining two-thirds divided among the surviving children and heirs. It is important to note that in 18th century Pennsylvania, the eldest son was given two equal shares.3
- As heirs received their portion of the estate, they signed a release that stated their name and the amount of property they received.
- When a decedent left minor children (under the age of 21) behind, a guardian was appointed to protect the interests of the child. This resulted in a Guardianship Bond. In Pennsylvania, the court appointed guardians for children younger than fourteen. Those over fourteen could choose their own guardian.4
In Pennsylvania, different courts were in charge of handling the probate-related duties. The Register of Wills was responsible for wills, administration papers for the intestate, and recorded wills, administration dockets, and indexes. The Orphan’s Court was in charge of real estate divisions, account auditing, and the financial interests/personal care of minor heirs.5
Locating Probate Records for Your Pennsylvania German Ancestors
Will books and Orphan’s Court dockets have been filmed for most counties. Administration dockets have been filmed for some. When searching for Pennsylvania probate records, first check Ancestry’s collection, Pennsylvania Wills and Probate Records, 1683-1993. Images of probate records for 97% of Pennsylvania’s counties are included. Those that haven’t been included were either not available to be acquired, or they may have been lost or destroyed prior to the collection being created. Use the collection’s browse feature to see what years are covered for your county of interest. When the only record discovered in this collection is an index, use the information provided and go to FamilySearch’s browse-only collection, Pennsylvania Probate Records, 1683-1994 to find the correct book. Then browse to the page noted in the index to find the record. Some probate records were written in English. Those for Pennsylvania German ancestors could have been written in German. Revisit Part 3 of this series for German Handwriting and Translation helps.
If you don’t find any records by searching at Ancestry, or the records you do find seem incomplete, go to Pennsylvania Probate Records, 1683-1994 at FamilySearch or visit the FamilySearch catalog, do a place search for the county of interest, and browse to see what is available there. The organization of the original records and of each microfilmed record set will vary from county to county. Indexes for the records might be contained in a separate volume, while other records might have an index at the front of each book.
Some estate files contain a key at the beginning of each file. These keys note which documents are included in the file. General information, including a “key to the key” is often included at the beginning of the collection. See an example below from the Berks county estate files. The beginning of the film includes valuable information about Pennsylvania German names, a description of the records, a map of the county, names of Townships and their dates of formation, geographical abbreviations, a list of surrounding counties, notes about boundary changes, and provides a master key explaining what the letters on the keys included at the beginning of each individual file stand for.
As always is the case, if you don’t find probate records for your Pennsylvania German ancestor in the collections mentioned above, don’t be afraid to contact local courthouses to find out what else might be available.
Probate records are a key source of genealogically significant information for many of our Pennsylvania German ancestors. Understanding the probate process provides knowledge about what types of records might have been created as your ancestor’s estate was settled. Armed with this knowledge, you can begin to seek out these records and benefit from the information contained therein. The value you will gain from probate records for your Pennsylvania German ancestors is worth the time spent in finding and analyzing them.
- Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 4th edition (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2017), 399.
- “U.S. Probate Records Class Handout,” paragraph 2, FamilySearch Research Wiki (https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/U.S._Probate_Records_Class_Handout : accessed 23 February 2022).
- Alexander James Dallas, Laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 14 October 1700-1 October 1781 (Philadelphia, Hall and Sellers, 1797), appendix p. 44; digital version, Google Books (https://books.google.com/books?id=Cdw1AQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false : accessed 24 January 2022).
- Alexander James Dallas, Laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 14 October 1700-1 October 1781 (Philadelphia, Hall and Sellers, 1797), 102; digital version, Google Books (https://books.google.com/books?id=Cdw1AQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false : accessed 24 January 2022).
- Kay Haviland Freilich, NGS Research in the States Series: Pennsylvania, 3rd edition (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2016), 36.