Using Wills and Probate Records in Genealogy Research

Using wills and probate records for genealogy can lead to unexpected “inheritances” of your own: clues about relatives’ identities, wealth, personal belongings, and family relationships. Wills can reveal great family stories, too: researcher Margaret Linford entertains her mother with them during trips to the courthouse. Here’s how wills can help your family history—and Margaret’s tips for finding and using them.

Using Wills and Probate Records in Genealogy Research

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way” to find out more about your family’s history.

Wills are legal records created to direct the settlement of a person’s property and other final affairs after his or her death. Probate (or estate) records are created after an individual’s death as part of the legal distribution of the estate and payment of debts. You’ll often find wills as one of many kinds of the documents included in probate records.

Wills and other probate records are valuable research tools, but are frequently neglected as sources of genealogical information. People often focus strictly on birth, marriage, and death records when searching out their family histories. If you rely solely on those records, your research will encounter many brick walls in the early 1800’s. 

Probate records and land records were often the only official documents left behind to tell the stories of ancestors who lived prior to the legal requirement for the registry of births and deaths.

Wills of slaveholders can also be valuable tools in conducting African-American genealogical research. Before the Civil War, enslaved people were listed in wills because they were valuable property of slaveholders.

For instance, in the 1863 Smyth County property tax records, it is noted that Abijah Thomas owned 56 slaves, which were valued at $53,800. Some were given their freedom within wills, while others were transferred to other members of the family or sold. For instance, one of the first wills recorded in Smyth County is that of Hugh Cole.

Within his will, he says the following: “I bequeath to my beloved wife Martha Cole a negro girl named Amanda which she is to hold during her natural life.” The mention of an enslaved person in a will—along with any personal description of him or her—may be the only surviving document to mention that person by name.

Within another Smyth County will, recorded on February 20, 1835, a woman named Elizabeth Blessing left the following directive: “I will and desire that my negro woman Betty be free at my decease, and must see to her own support during her life, as I shall not make any provision for her out of any part of my estate.”

Information Found in Wills Varies

You can find just about anything in a will!

One organ, one compass, chain and plotting instruments, two chests, one hat rack, one music rack, one old United States map. These are some of the items found in the appraisement bill of the personal property belonging to the estate of Abijah Thomas, who lived in the well-known Octagon House in Marion, Virginia.

Here is a photo of that home, now in a dilapidated state, from a Wikipedia file image (click image for attribution.)

Octagon12 8 07

Also included in his personal property is a church bell. The story behind the bell is intriguing and illustrates the significance of the probate process.

Abijah Thomas utilized the bell at his foundry works in Marion, Virginia, to indicate shift changes. For decades, the oral history surrounding the bell indicated that he had donated it to the Wytheville Presbyterian Church before he died. The court documents reveal a different story.

court document regarding the church bell

Court document regarding the church bell

Since Abijah died intestate, the court appointed three men to appraise his personal property. During this process, the bell was valued at $75. It was sold on September 1, 1877, to the Presbyterian Church in the town of Wytheville, Virginia, as shown in the above list of items sold from his estate.

This document dispels the family myth surrounding the church bell. This is just one of many examples of the types of stories you find in probate records in courthouses all across the United States.

Genealogical Information May be Found in a Will or Probate Records

Wills and probate records can pass along unexpected genealogical wealth to you. You may find the following information in them: date of death (or approximate date of death), name of spouse, children, parents, siblings and their place of residence, adoption or guardianship of minor children, ancestor’s previous residence, occupation, land ownership, and household items.

Probate records also contain such interesting stories that they can even be read for entertainment!

Whenever I go on a research trip, I usually drag some poor, unsuspecting soul along with me. That person is usually my Mom. While she enjoys the scenery on our drive to different courthouses, she rarely enjoys the time spent at the courthouse.

Some of the research I do requires me to stay at the courthouse for several hours. That has posed a problem in the past since I haven’t known how to keep Mom occupied. But I have found the perfect solution. When we arrive at the courthouse, I find an old will book and let her start reading.

My mom enjoys reading the stories in these old—and sometimes tattered—books. One of her favorite stories came from a will in Henry County, Virginia. It is the will of Addie T. Thornton and reads as follows:

“I also give to my nephew Thomas T. Earles, fifty ($50) in cash to be deposited in some safe Banking Institution, on interest until he arrives at the age of twenty-one (21) years old and then the principal to be invested in a watch and I request that a monogram with both his and my name, one on inside and the other on outside of watch.

Obviously, Addie Thornton cared deeply for her nephew, Thomas, and wanted to make sure he remembered her for the rest of his life.

Here’s part of Addie’s will, followed by a closeup image of the lines about the watch:

Addie Thornton's will

Addie Thornton's will

Stories like these are so much more meaningful than just a date of birth, marriage or death. Wills can help us know who these people were, how they lived and what was important to them during their sojourn here on earth. We can learn of their struggles and their successes. We can tell what their lives were like by reading through the lists of household items included in the inventories that are recorded.

And with stories like Addie’s bequest of the watch, we can also learn about ancestors’ personalities and how they expressed (or occasionally withheld) love for others through the final disposition of their belongings.

How a Will is Created

Before beginning probate record research, it is important to be familiar with the probate process and legal terminology associated with these records. It is estimated that, prior to 1900, about half of the population either left a will or was mentioned in one. Those who died having left a will are said to have died “testate.” Those who died without leaving a valid will died “intestate.”

A typical, legally-recognized will contains certain critical elements. It should be in written form and it must have signatures of the person leaving the will (“testator”) and witnesses, who attest to the validity of the document. A codicil is a document created by the testator to amend the will.

Once the testator dies, the will is presented to the judicial authority by a family member or executor/executrix (person appointed by the testator to see that his/her wishes are carried out), accompanied by a written application or petition for probate.

These petitions include names and addresses of the closest living relatives. The court then admits the will to probate and sets a hearing, providing an opportunity for interested parties to contest the will. The will is then recorded and the executor is given the authority to settle the estate. During this process, an inventory of the estate is made.

Some wills contain detailed information, regarding the testator’s final wishes. At times, these requests will shed light on relationships that might not otherwise be discovered. This was the case for a will on file at my local courthouse. Due to the nature of the requests made by the testator, I have changed the last name of the family to Smith. This wife was, obviously, upset with her husband and the circumstances of their marriage, providing clear details of her grievances for future generations.

“Since my husband has never made me a part of his family and has completely cut me out of ever living in Chihowie, Virginia [the husband’s hometown], or never provided me with a home or paid any of my bills and has broken all marriage contracts that we agreed to—I hereby decree that I be buried in Round Hill Cemetery at Marion, Virginia, where I own a lot—that my body or anything I own or possess will never be taken into Chilhowie or the Smith household.

My husband has never taken me into his own home, and furthermore stated, backed up by his nephew and his wife, whom he turned everything over to shortly after our marriage—that I would never own or live on a foot of the Smith ground, even though I have tried to build or buy or remodel a home in Chilhowie, Virginia, at my own expense.

“I give all books and material things pertaining to books to the Smyth County Library, Marion, Virginia, as I am sure that my family would not want anything to fall into the hands of anyone who has mistreated me.

“My husband has kept our marriage strictly on a time clock basis since his nephew and his wife moved back to Smyth County, and under their influence he comes at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. (whichever is convenient to them) or later, and leaves promptly in the morning by 8:00 or 8:30 a.m., never calling during the day or show[ing] any sign of caring. He changed completely after they returned to Chilhowie to break up the marriage. Therefore, if I am still his wife, or otherwise, see that my wishes are carried out and that my remains and possessions remain in Marion.”

Where to Find Wills and Probate Records

The best place to search for a will is at the courthouse where your ancestor lived, if you can reasonably go there yourself.

Since the probate process is a function of state governments, the laws governing the maintenance of these records and their location will vary by state and should be researched before making a trip to the courthouse.

For example, in Virginia, probate records are maintained within the Circuit Courts and independent cities. In Massachusetts, probate records are found in county Probate Courts.

A useful resource for figuring out how U.S. probate records are organized state-by-state is free on the Ancestry.com wiki: Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources. Scroll down to click on the name of the state in question. Then go to the right side and click on the probate records link for that state to read about these records.

Once you have determined where the wills for your state/county are housed, the next step in the research process is to locate the Index for Wills. Even–perhaps especially–if you are unsure of the date of death for one of your ancestors, you may want to look through the index of wills (an example is shown here). Even when no specific death record exists, you may be surprised to find probate records that reveal the date of death, a list of heirs and more.

There will, most likely, be several index books, organized by year spans. These books serve as a compass, pointing you to any available probate records that may include your ancestors. The index is divided by devisor (the person making the will) and devisee (any person who is named in the will, as the recipient of property).

The research process will be incomplete if you do not conduct a search for your ancestors among the list of devisees. Even if you fail to find their names among the devisors, they could have inherited property from someone else.

Probate records include more than just the will of an individual. You may find letters of administration, lists of heirs, inventories, bills of appraisement, guardianships and other documents related to the settlement of an estate. In some counties, all these documents are found in the same collection. Other counties maintain these records in separate collections. It is important to understand the manner in which probate records are organized for your particular county.

The probate research process should not be rushed. Valuable records may be overlooked when time dictates the quality of your research. For this reason, it is important that you set aside ample time to comb through the probate records. If you find yourself confused about abbreviations or the location of records within the courthouse, there is usually someone in the records vault who would be happy to assist you. Never be afraid (or embarrassed) to ask for help.

Smyth County, VA courthouse records

Fortunately for many of us who can’t easily get to every ancestor’s courthouse, there are some wills available online on genealogy websites, including two of the genealogy giants, FamilySearch and Ancestry.com.

For example:

  • Subscription website Ancestry.com has made it a priority to curate an enormous collection of wills and probate records from all 50 states. At last count, this collection has more than 170 million records—and they keep adding to it.
  • The free FamilySearch.org hosts millions of probate records from the U.S. and around the world (click here to browse their probate and court record collections). Many of these collections are marked “browse-only,” which means they are not yet searchable by name online. You just have to page through them. Click here for instructions on reading browse-only records on the site (it’s not that difficult—and did I mention they’re free?).

Additionally, libraries or genealogical societies in your ancestor’s hometown or county may have books with abstracts from local wills or other resources related to local probate record research.

General Index to Wills probate records genealogy research

General Index to Wills

Well Worth the Effort 

Finding the will of one of your ancestors is an amazing experience. Walking into the vault of a courthouse sometimes feels like walking into a time machine. As you read through the pages that tell of people who lived so long ago, you feel like for even just a small moment that you have gone back in time. You are sitting with them and hearing their stories whispered through the aging and brittle pages that have been left behind. They are all there just waiting to tell their stories. So take the opportunity to go to the courthouse and “meet” your ancestors through the one of the last—and perhaps one of the most revealing—documents they may ever have written: their wills.

Researching Wills and Probate Records: Your Next Steps

Take your genealogy research to the next level by planning a trip to a courthouse to retrieve records like wills and probate records. These articles and podcast episodes will help you get ready:

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Margaret Linford
Margaret Linford is a professional genealogist who specializes in the Mid-South Region of United States research and has logged over 20,000 research hours. Born and raised in Virginia, she has enjoyed traveling the world, and now lives in her childhood hometown with her husband and children. She enjoys teaching her children about heritage, taking them along on research trips and serving as President of the Smyth County Genealogical Society.

Season Four

The Genealogy Gems Podcast Episodes
2009 Season Four

Scroll to the bottom of each Podcast Show Notes Page and click the episode mp3 file to download the episode for listening.  It will take a minute or two for the episode to download, and it will open in your computer’s audio program (for example: Quicktime or Windows Media Player.)

Episode 61 Listen & Show Notes
A sneak peek at the new website GenSeek with Steve Nickle, President of Familylink.com.  And Part 2 of Lisa’s interview with Darby Hinton where they discuss the Hinton Family History.

Episode 62  Listen & Show Notes
Go Genealogical Channel Surfing:  Part 3 of Lisa’s interview with Darby Hinton about his new TV pilot Hintons Living History.  Hang Ten with Ken Marks, executive producer of the new TV series Legend Seekers.

Episode 63 Listen & Show Notes
Lisa conducts an exclusive interview with Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, star of the hit TV series The History Detectives.

Episode 64  Listen & Show Notes
New Online Newspaper Databases, An answer to a listener’s Family Tree Maker software question, A Gem of an Idea: Online Downloadable Source Citations, Interview with Maureen Taylor, and the History of Casey Jones

Episode 65  Listen & Show Notes
Interview with George Morgan, Mother’s Day, Odometer History

Episode 66  Listen & Show Notes
An Important Anniversary:  D-Day, Upcoming Genealogy Conferences, Genealogy Records Update, Interview with Kathy Meade of Genline.com about new features at the Swedish records website, and Paper of Record at the Google News Archive.

Episode 67  Listen & Show Notes
Jamboree Highlights, News, Interview with Genealogy Blogger Randy Seaver of the Genea-Musings blog

Episode 68  Listen & Show Notes
GenealogyWise, Lisa on the Genealogy Guys Pocast, Paper of Record Update, Interview with Genealogy Blogger Thomas MacEntee, 40th Anniversary of Apollo 11, A Special Collection at the DAR Library, Lisa to Teach Family Tree Magazine Webinar

Episode 69  Listen & Show Notes
The First U.S. Census, Interview with author and genealogist Tony Burroughs, “My Mother Was a Quilter” by Lee Drew,

Episode 70 Listen & Show Notes
Resources for understanding the U.S. Federal Census, Member Connect Tour with David Graham from Ancestry.

Episode 71 Listen & Show Notes
The new Genealogy Gem rhinestone pin, The Mailbox, Member Connect with Ancestry, Part 2, Family History Thoughts with Lee Drew “Choices & Consequences,”

Episode 72  Listen & Show Notes
Civil War Records, The Mailbox, Probate Records with Jana Broglin, Sorting Your Bookmarks Alphabetically in Safari,

Episode 73 Listen & Show Notes
It’s All About You and Genealogy!  New Digitized Newspapers, Premium Episodes.

Episode 73 Video Cast  Show Notes
Genealogy News Segment

Episode 74 Listen & Show Notes
An Amazing Story Featuring the DeadFred Web Site (Interview with Joe Bott)

Episode 75 Listen & Show Notes
The New Free Genealogy Gems Toolbar, The Mailbox, Interview with David Rencher, Head Genealogist at FamilySearch About the Digitization of Records and the Future of FamilySearch.

Episode 76 Listen & Show Notes
News, Mailbox, The 1810 Census, Part 2 of Lisa’s Interview with David Rencher Head Genealogist at FamilySearch.org, the Free Genealogy Gems Toolbar.

Episode 77 Listen & Show Notes
News, Mailbox, Interview with Maureen Taylor “The Photo Detective” about ancestral hairstyles, Family Storytelling During the Holidays.

Episode 78 Listen & Show Notes
News, Mailbox, the New Genealogy Gems Podcast App for iPhone and iTouch, Adoption research, 45 History, and a video of Mona Golabek and the inspiring story of her family.

Episode 79 Listen & Show Notes
This episode is a broadcast of the LIVE Genealogy Gems Podcast presented at the Family History Expo in Mesa, Arizona on January 22, 2010 featuring guests Gena Philibert Ortega, Thomas MacEntee, Bruce Buzbee and Anastasia Tyler.

Episode 80 Listen & Show Notes
Lisa’s special guest is Irene Johnson (you know her from the PBS TV series Ancestors).  She worked at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City for 15 years and gives us her best tips and tricks.

Turn a Kindle Ebook into an Audiobook on iPhone

Wish someone could read your Kindle e-book to you? Your iPhone can. Here’s how to turn a Kindle ebook into an audiobook. For free.

Turn eBook into AudioBook

Turn eBook into AudioBook

I love to read. But when I’m on the road, doing chores or working out, it’s easier to listen to books. Sometimes I purchase an audio format or find one at my local library. But audiobooks are pretty expensive, and they’re not always available for the books I want.

So what if I have an e-book already on my Kindle and I want my iPhone to read it to me? It can.

Here’s how to turn a Kindle ebook into an audiobook on an iPhone 5s:

1. Customize VoiceOver settings. On your iPhone, go to Settings > General > Accessibility.
2. Set the reading speed. On the VoiceOver screen, go down to the Speaking Rate bar and adjust it to a speed you like: toward the turtle image for slower, and toward the running rabbit for faster.
3. Choose the reading voice. On the same screen, you can select the voice you want to hear. Choose Speech. Under Default Dialect, you can choose among several English-speaking reading voices, categorized under U.S., Australian, U.K., Irish and South African English. Or tap “Add New Language” to enable one of many other languages.
4. Open your Kindle app (or download it here).
5. Choose a book from your Library. Or go to Amazon.com, select Kindle Store under the All Departments dropdown menu on the search bar, and search for titles (or search “Kindle free books” for free Kindle books to read). You should also check with your local library about borrowing Kindle ebooks.)
6. Open the book. Tap the book and swipe left to page forward through the front matter until you want to start reading.
7. Ask Siri to “turn on VoiceOver.” You can also do this manually by going back to Settings > General > Accessibility. Once you turn on VoiceOver, it reads everything to you. I find it annoying and more difficult to navigate in the iPhone with VoiceOver on, so I don’t enable it until I am ready to use it. After Siri confirms that VoiceOver is enabled, press the Home button once to return to your Kindle book.
8. Start the audio reading. A black border will appear around your Kindle book page. A voice will start to give you instructions. Swipe down with two fingers to begin reading continuously (beginning with the current page and continuing through the book until you stop.
9. Double tap the screen to stop reading and bring up the menu options.

If you’re used to audiobooks read by actors and professional readers, you’ll miss their polished performances. But the voice works for me in a pinch, when I just want to listen to an e-book I already have on my Kindle.

Why not try this with the current Genealogy Gems Book Club featured title, The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson? Click on the book title to order the Kindle e-book. It’s a perfect summer read: a light-hearted romance with colorful characters and a compelling historical backdrop at the outset of World War I.

genealogy book club genealogy gemsThis post was brought to you by the free, no-commitment online Genealogy Gems Book Club. We choose titles for their appeal to family history lovers, AND we interview their (often best-selling) authors. Click here to learn more about the Genealogy Gems Book Club.

England Emigrants and More: New Genealogy Records Online

England emigrants to its U.S. colonies appear in new genealogy records online this week. Also: the 1891 New South Wales census; Czech church, land and school records; English parish records; and U.S. collections from the Freedmen’s Bureau, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and New England towns and cities.

dig these new record collections

Australia – New South Wales census

Findmypast.com has published over 200,000 records from the 1891 New South Wales census. The census collectors’ books are the source, as these are the only surviving documents. “While they provide less detail than a full census would, they can still be a useful aid to historians and genealogists alike in placing people at a specific moment in time,” states the collection description. “Each result will provide you with a transcript and image of the original collector’s books from the 1891 census. Original images may provide you with additional details, such as the number of individuals living in the same household or the number of residents who were Aboriginal or Chinese.”

Czechoslovakia – Church, Land and School

FamilySearch.org has added to its collection of Czech Republic Church Records spanning more than 400 years (1552-1963). You’ll find “images and some indexes of baptisms/births, marriages, and deaths that occurred in the Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, and Reformed Church parishes, as well as entries in those registers for Jews.” These are taken from parish registers and synagogue records now in regional archives. Though not fully indexed, the browse-only records number over 4 million! (Click here to learn how to use browse-only collections on FamilySearch.org; remember you can use the FamilySearch wiki for help in translating records in another language.)

FamilySearch has also added more than 850,000 browsable images to its existing collection of Czech Republic Land Records 1450-1889 and more than a million browsable images to the existing collection Czech Republic School Registers 1799-1953.

England Emigrants

Remember recently when we blogged about emigrant records, or those created about people leaving a country? Ancestry.com recently posted a new database called Emigrants in Bondage, which it says is “the most important list of ships’ passengers to be published in years.” Indexed are names of “more than 50,000 English men, women, and children… sentenced to be deported to the American colonies for crimes ranging from the theft of a handkerchief to bigamy or highway robbery.” The collection dates cover 1614 to 1775, after which time the British empire was not permitted to ship its “undesirables” to U.S. shores.

England – Parish records – Staffordshire and Sussex

Findmypast has added to its collections of church vital records for Staffordshire, England. Its browsable parish registers, 1538-1900 now includes 300,000 full-color page-by-page images. Separate databases of baptisms, wedding banns, marriages and burials have also been updated.

Also, more than 1.2 million indexed records have been added to FamilySearch’s collection of England, Sussex, Parish Records, dating 1538-1910.  Sussex parish registers contain baptisms, marriages/banns, and burials. Date ranges of available records vary by locality; you will want to use the coverage table at the FamilySearch wiki to see what’s available.

U.S. – Freedmen’s Bureau Records

Now that the Freedmen’s Bureau collections have been fully indexed, FamilySearch is dumping them onto its website in batches. This week, they added these new databases:

U.S. – Military

FamilySearch.org has added just over 4 million indexed records to its database of United States Muster Rolls of the Marine Corps (1798-1937). The collection is described as an “index and images of muster rolls of the United States Marine Corps located at the National Archives. The records are arranged chronologically by month, then by post, station or ship.”

This week, the Fold3.com blog reminds us of its Coast Guard collections, in honor of the Coast Guard’s 226th birthday. Hundreds of thousands of search results on the site relate to Coast Guard history, from disapproved Navy survivors pension files to photos dating to the Civil War; accounts of shipwrecks or accidents, WWII war diaries for several units, images of insignia and Navy cruise books.

U.S. – New England

FamilySearch has posted a new index of New Hampshire Vital and Town Records Index for the years 1656-1938. It contains shy of half a million records of births, marriages and deaths. Entries were sourced from multiple archives in New Hampshire; the citation for each record is included in the index entry at the bottom of the record screen.

The New England Historic Genealogical Society has announced improvements to its databases for three New England cities, which now include more searchable fields and images. “Hartford, CT: General Index of Land Records of the Town of Hartford, 1639-1839, is now searchable by grantee and grantor name, and results provide the record type and volume and page of the record (available on microfilm at the Connecticut State Library). Boston, MA: Births, 1800-1849, and Dover, NH: Vital Records, 1649-1892, are now searchable by first name, last name, record type, family member names, date, and location.”

 

 

 

 

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