Probate Records

Val Greenwood on Probate Records Researcher’s Guide – Genealogy Pointers –   August 11, 2015

For sheer clarity and incisiveness on any area of research in American genealogy, you just can’t beat Val Greenwood’s Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Consider the following excerpt from Mr. Greenwood’s chapter explaining the value of utility of probate records:
Some persons have died leaving no property of value and hence no record of probate. If you seek these persons in your research then probate records will have no direct value for you. Most persons in America, however, who have lived to adulthood, have left some type of estate to be administered, and in the resulting records your searches can achieve varying degrees of success. In fact, you cannot completely write off the value of probate records even for those who died without property. They are often mentioned in probate records, especially wills, of others–sometimes as witnesses, sometimes as beneficiaries, sometimes as executors or trustees, and sometimes just as innocent third parties (such as the persons from whom something being bequeathed was acquired or as owners of adjacent property). I estimate that roughly half of the people in America, historically, have either left wills or have been mentioned in them.
The very nature of probate records recommends them as an invaluable genealogical source. They exist because of relationships, both family and social, between various persons. When a man makes a will it is because he wants those whom he loves–generally his family–to have the substance and benefits of his worldly estate after his death. The laws set up to govern intestate estates are based on the same premise–members of the deceased’s family are his rightful beneficiaries. Thus the great value of probate records lies in their content, and those direct statements of relationship between persons who made wills and those named therein stand as powerful evidence in the genealogical “court.”
Because more persons are involved than just those who made wills (testators) and those who died without so doing (intestates), the true value of probates is multiplied far beyond what one might ordinarily expect. Every person named therein and every relationship stated increases the value of the records. Probates are a family-oriented source, and families–complete families–after all, are the very essence of genealogical research. They are what genealogy is all about.
In colonial and frontier America the proportionate number of persons who left wills was greater than we often imagine. This is because our American forebears were a land-and-property-minded people. Land was inexpensive and even those of humble circumstances could be land owners. Thus the proportionate number of wills is likely to be higher in rural and agrarian communities than in the larger cities and industrial areas where large numbers of persons owned nothing of sufficient value to warrant the making of a will. Due to this factor, in those earlier periods of time when the population was nearly all rural and practically everyone owned land, and especially in those localities where few other records were being kept, the genealogist must depend heavily on probate records. And, incidentally, they meet the challenge very well.
Mr. Greenwood goes on to explain the limitations of probate records. For example, probate records do not necessarily name all next-of-kin, or even spouses. Only rarely will they identify the maiden surname of a female spouse. More problematical, since the deceased often went to live with a relative during his final infirmity, failing to know his place of residence at the time of death can be a barrier to finding his probate records.
Even so, probate records are a potentially rich source for any researcher. This explains why the author has gone to the trouble of creating an extensive glossary of legal terminology found in probate records. Terms like appurtenance, cotenancy, dower, fee simple, stirpes, surety, and many more. Researchers will find additional glossaries of legal terms in Mr. Greenwood’s chapters on wills, land records, and other record groupings. Little wonder The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy is still the textbook of choice for genealogy classes taught at college campuses around the United States.


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