Are you a bit intimidated by probate research? Have you located a will but neglected to find the “rest of the story?” With probate records being digitized by Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, chances are you have some exciting discoveries to be made. Did you know that the Probate Estate packet of your ancestor can be a real page turner? Or should I say, “next image” turner. I made a huge find recently when I searched for my ancestor, Thomas B. Royston in Ancestry.com’s new collection: “Alabama, Wills and Probate Records.” Over fifty images were just waiting for me to peruse.
Since the packet is arranged more or less chronologically, it read like a play that was unfolding before my eyes. I couldn’t drag myself away from the computer until I had scanned every paper. Did I find anything new about this ancestor and family I have researched so extensively? Just proof of his correct death date, the death date of his wife, further proof that my Robert C. Royston was his son, and that there really was a Leonidas Royston. Not that much, really . . . . All jesting aside, I was astounded by the amount of information in the packets and because I had invested so much into researching this family I couldn’t help but invent a story as I went along. So today I’m giving a simple look into the probate process, illustrated by the estate of Thomas B. Royston. I’m also going to give you 5 tips at the end of this article to help you in your probate research.
The Players in order of appearance¹
“Executor (-trix) – The person (executor = male; executrix = female) who has been named by the testator of the will to manage the estate.” (Cynthia Royston )
“Heir – An heir is a person who inherits property upon the death of the owner.” (living children: Mary, Adeline, Sarah, Joseph, Robert C, Thomas B, Margarette, Richard, Leonidas, Mariah, Martha)
“Minor – A minor is a person who has not yet reached full legal age.”(Robert, Thomas B, Margarette, Richard, Leonidas, Mariah, & Martha)
“Testator (-trix) – The testator (male) or testatrix (female) is the person making the will or testament.” (Thomas B. Royston)
“Witness – A witness is a person who attests to actions or events personally seen.” (A.J. Dozier, Brayton Johnson, John W. Magbee)
“Decedent – The decedent is the person who is deceased.” (Thomas B. Royston)
“Legatee – A legatee is a person receiving real or personal property by way of a will.” (Joseph Royston, Robert C. Royston, Franklin Royston, Sarah Parker)
“Appraiser – An appraiser is an impartial person who estimates the value of the personal or real property of the estate.” (W.T. Clark, Brayton Johnson, William J. Lee, John W. Magbee)
“Administrator de bonis non (administrator d.b.n.) – A successor administrator appointed by the court to handle the remainder of the affairs of the estate (such as upon the death of the administrator).” (N.D. Denson)
Thomas Beverly Royston, born about 1806 in Greene County, Georgia, has been living in Chambers County, Alabama since 1850. He owns a large cotton plantation and with his wife Cynthia, has fourteen children. The Civil War that ended just two years prior, took the life of three of his four oldest sons who fought for the Confederacy. His two oldest daughters are married and live in the area. The other nine children are at home.
Act I Wherein Thomas B. Royston writes his will² 18 September 1867
Two years after the end of the Civil War, Thomas B. Royston is ailing and feeling his end is near he dictates his will and states: “considering the uncertainty of this mortal life and being of sound and disposing mind and memory . . . do make this my last Will & Testament.” He leaves the “home place” to his “beloved wife, Cynthia” and deeds land to his sons Joseph and Robert C. Royston, grandson Franklin, and married daughter, Sarah Parker. Not mentioned are three older sons who didn’t survive the Civil War. Not named is his other married daughter (Mary Slagle) because she has already received her inheritance. Cynthia is given charge to school, educate, and raise his minor children, but they are not named.
Of note is the statement: “after the death of my wife Cynthia Royston all my estate both real and personal be equally divided between my several children share and share alike after my children which are now unmarried and minors be made equal with my children which are married.”
This is an important clue that the estate won’t be fully settled until Cynthia’s death and the children who are minors have come of age. Considering that the youngest child, Martha, is only four years old at the time of the will, this wasn’t going to happen until her marriage or at the latest 1884.
ACT II Wherein Thomas B. Royston dies and the probate process begins 21 September 1868
It is now one year after Thomas B. Royston made his last will & testament and he dies of unknown causes. Eight days later, his wife, Cynthia, named Executrix in the will begins the probate process by petitioning the court to have a day set for the hearing and subpoenas issued to bring in the witnesses. She names all eleven living children, where they reside, and whether they are of full age, over twenty-one, or minors under or over fourteen years of age.
One month later, John W. Magbee, one of the witnesses to the will, appears in court and swears on oath that the will shown to him is that of Thomas B Royston.
ACT III Wherein the Personal Property of Thomas B. Royston deceased is inventoried 30 October 1868
Five weeks have transpired since Cynthia initiated the probate process and four appraisers arrive at her home to take stock of everything of value. Two of the men are the same who witnessed the will, one is a neighbor. They start with the livestock, listing the value of each horse, cow, and hog then proceed to the tools and lastly the household items. Among the many interesting items are the two cotton gins – $125, blacksmith tools – $30, and a sewing machine – $25.
ACT IV Wherein Cynthia Royston is removed as Executrix 6 February 1875
Six and a half years have transpired since the inventory of Thomas B. Royston’s estate. One of his children, Joseph Royston, appears in court and swears under oath that Cynthia Royston, the Executrix has “removed to the State of Texas” without “having made a final settlement.” The Probate Judge has her removed from her duties and appoints James M Richards as the new Administrator. Two thousand dollars worth of assets still need to be settled.
ACT V Wherein N.D. Denson is appointed Administrator de bonis non 1 November 1882
Seven years have now passed since Cynthia was removed as Executrix and another gentleman, N. D. Denson petitions the Judge of Probate to be named administrator de bonis non. He “alleges that said Cynthia Royston departed this life in the state of Texas on or about the 2nd day of August 1882 more than forty days from the filing of this petition, that said Cynthia Royston left unadministered and undisposed of land belonging to said deceased of the value of fifteen hundred dollars in Chambers County Alabama.”
N.D. Denson also reports on the whereabouts of the Royston heirs and legatees. He includes spouses of the daughters, ages of all, and their residences in Texas and in Alabama. Now that all of the children are of age, or married in the case of the daughters, the remainder of the estate can be settled. N.D Denson petitions the court for the right to sell the last of the land belonging to the estate and divide it equally among the heirs.
ACT VI Wherein the Texas Royston Heirs Protest the granting of Administration to N.D. Denson 16 December 1882
Six weeks after N.D. Denson is granted administration duties for the settling of the Royston estate, four of the children appear before the Judge of the Court for Collin County, Texas and file a protest against N.D. Denson being granted administrator or anyone else because the children are all now of “full age and can lawfully take possession of the land and property devised.”
Adeline and Mattie are interviewed separately to make sure they aren’t being coerced by their husbands in this action.
The protest from the Texas Royston’s comes too late, the heirs residing in Alabama are summoned to appear before the court to contest the application for the land sale.
ACT VII The Final Settlement 6 August 1883
N.D. Denson appears before the judge and swears that he has not used any of the funds of the estate for his own benefit. He swears on oath and names for the last time the heirs, their ages, and their residences.
And that’s the end!
5 Tips To Help in Probate Research
I learned a lot from transcribing and ordering the many documents in the probate packet. Here are five tips that can help you find, organize, and use probate records.
1. Locate all of the probate papers
Over ten years ago I contacted the Chambers County Clerk and requested the will of Thomas B. Royston. I was too inexperienced as a researcher to realize that where there’s a will, there is generally a probate packet. A few weeks ago I decided to search the microfilm at the Family History Library for any references to Thomas B. Royston and discovered the final settlement papers. I used the FamilySearch Wiki to look up some of the unfamiliar terms and found the state links. Clicking on Alabama, I got the direct link to the Ancestry.com database “Alabama, Wills and Probate Records, 1753-1999.” Interestingly, the probate papers on Ancestry.com didn’t include the final settlement paper I had found at the Family History Library. The lesson: search in multiple locations to get as complete a probate collection as possible.
To locate probate for your ancestor:
-Use the FamilySearch Research Wiki to learn about probate records in your area and follow the links to the records.
-If the probate records you seek are not yet online, check the FamilySearch Catalog to see if a microfilm is available.
-Contact the County Courthouse and ask how you can get copies of the probate packet.
-Try the website, SAMPUBCO, a Gateway to all types of probate records.
2. Transcribe all the Probate Papers
You may be tempted to skip this step, but I have found that an initial investment in effort saves me time in the long run. Once I’ve deciphered a document, I don’t want to do it again. Plus, in the process of transcribing, you make sure you catch all of the interesting facts you might have missed in scanning for names and dates. In transcribing the Royston estate papers, I put the image number or citation and the date of the document in bold at the beginning of each transcription.
3. Put the Probate Papers in order
The probate packet from Ancestry.com on Thomas B. Royston had over fifty images and they weren’t quite in order. The will was first, but the of rest of the papers were a bit scrambled. Once I had transcribed them, I started a new document and copied and pasted them into order, easy to do because I had dated each one.
4. Extract Key Information
Now that the papers were in order, I was able to make sense of what was happening. I extracted important information like the death dates of both Thomas B. Royston and his wife Cynthia. I could compare the names and ages of the children with information I already had. I also could trace the family who had moved to Texas.
5. Look for further research possibilities
As I read the probate documents, I had one main question. What happened to all of the land? My next research project with this family will be to track down land records. The Texas locations also gave me places to search for the family. Every record you find should lead you to your next research possibility and probate is no exception.
Good luck in your adventures into probate!
¹ FamilySearch Wiki, “Glossary of United States Probate Terms,” familysearch.org, viewed 13 April 2016, https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Glossary_of_United_States_Probate_Terms.
²Estate Files and Index, 1832-1915, Chambers County, Alabama; Author: Alabama. Probate Judge (Chambers County); Probate Place: Chambers, Alabama; Ancestry.com. Alabama, Wills and Probate Records, 1753-1999 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.