Probate records are some of the most valuable, informative genealogical records you will come across. There are several different kinds, and each one can tell you previously unknown things about your ancestors. You may find probate records that are simple inventories of estates, wills with varying amounts of personal information in them, and legal records from proving the will (and sometimes, contesting it). Probate records let you know what things your ancestors owned, how much money they had, how well they lived, and their family connections. If a will names children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, in-laws, and friends, as they often do, this information will allow you to confirm suspected relationships and learn new ones.
So, where do you find probate records? There are a few different places.
1. County Courthouses
County courthouses can contain probate records going back centuries. Once they are recorded at the county level, they never leave it, unless something happens to the courthouse and the records are destroyed. Burned courthouses were an issue in many counties across the nation in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the bane of genealogists everywhere who want to access the records that were in them.
Assuming the courthouse where your ancestor lived is still intact, you should be able to go there and look up their probate records in the court’s index, or get a court employee to help you find it. You will be finding the original probate records by going in person. If you can’t make the trip in person, such as with a courthouse that is far away, you can call or write the court to see if they will look up your ancestor in their records and send you any information they find in the probate files.
Of course, not every person is going to leave a probate record behind, but a lot of people did. It is extremely worth it, genealogically speaking, to check to see if a probate record exists for your ancestor.
Ancestry.com just added a huge new collection of probate records from around the United States this year. These are the same probate records you would find in county courthouses. Ancestry.com sent representatives out to county courthouses across the country to get the courthouses to allow them to digitize their probate records. While not every courthouse complied, most of them did. You can now look up most of your ancestors’ probate records on Ancestry.com, rather than traveling to or writing a courthouse. The images are scans of the originals, and you can download and save them to your computer to add to your own genealogy records, and to refer to whenever you need to in your research.
3. Older Relatives
If you have older relatives who have collected a large amount of family information over the decades, you should visit them and see what they have in their boxes, chests, and files, if they will let you. They may have records of wills and probate proceedings that go back generations. Even if they only have these records for their own parents and/or grandparents, you are still finding some genealogical gold. Bring a scanner with you to capture the images, to make sure they are preserved for posterity. Your relative may have probate records that do not exist anywhere else, thanks to burned courthouses. These rare documents could open up whole new avenues of research for you.
4. State or Local Archive Buildings
Probate records from colonial times may be found in county courthouses, but are more often found in archive buildings. If you are looking for the probate records for an ancestor who lived in America before the American Revolution, visit or write to the historical society in the city, town, or county in which they lived. Their probate documents may have been preserved and made their way there. You might even be allowed to handle an original document from the 1600s or 1700s with remnants of red wax seals still on them. Even if you don’t get to handle the original, you will still be shown a copy or a microfilmed version of it.
Probate records are incredibly valuable genealogical documents. They are well worth searching for on every branch of your family. The more of them you discover, the more you will learn about your family history, and about your ancestors as individual human beings. That is a real treasure in the study of genealogy.
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)