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Genealogy: Researching Estates

Learn the best way to research different estates.

Genealogy: Researching Estates

Genie Jargon

To reach the age of majority is to become of legal age. This usually was 21 for a male, and 18 or 16 for a female, but the age differed from state to state and in different time periods.

Those Departed Relatives

After you've tracked the deeds of your family in the courthouse, you'll want to do some research with estates. Estates are the whole of one's possessions, especially the property and debts left by a person at the time of death. They are another valuable source of clues. Relationships are often specified. Normally, those you first encounter will involve estates of decedents, (that is, people who died).

There are other types of estates. Perhaps a minor inherited some property and the court appointed a guardian to manage his or her estate until the age of majority, or, you might find the estate of an incompetent who was in need of a guardian.

More of Those Indexes

Sometimes the clerks have created a consolidated index of the early estates, which includes a variety of estate documents. There may also be individual indexes for wills, administrations, bonds, and other records. Sometimes the only indexes available are those in each individual book. Will Book A has its own index, Will Book B has its own, and so on.

Genie Jargon

Real property is immovable property: land and, generally, what is erected or affixed to the land. Personal property is generally money, slaves, or goods: those items that are movable and tangible. Animals, furniture, and merchandise are personal property.

Died With or Without

Basically, you seek two kinds of decedents' estates: testate and intestate. People dying with a will are referred to as dying testate, those dying without a will die intestate. If the person died leaving real or personal property that needed to be settled, an estate proceeding was filed in the county of residence. Some people, however, did not have sufficient property (determined by the state laws) to necessitate a court proceeding, so you may never find an actual record.

Taking Charge

If your ancestor left a will, he or she usually named within the will an executor to handle his or her affairs. This created a probate proceeding. If the person died without a will, the court appointed an administrator to handle the estate; the process referred to as the administration. There are variations: the court may appoint an administrator to handle a will if the executor named did not want to serve, or if the executor died or moved to another state. You will learn these important refinements as you use the records.

Genie Jargon

Probate is a process of legally establishing the validity of a will. An executor is someone designated by the person making the will to handle his or her estate, as set out by the will, after the death of the testator (the person who made the will). An administrator is appointed by the court to handle the estate of a deceased person who has not left a will.

Tree Tips

It may be worthwhile to have the complete probate packet photocopied. Sometimes items from the packet are lost, or the entire packet itself can be mislaid or misfiled. Get them while you can!

The Probate Process

Probate, the action to prove and admit a will, was initiated (usually by a relative or creditor) after the death of the testator. Notice was given by the clerk of the court that the will would be heard on a particular day; anyone contesting it could appear. At the time of the hearing, the court required proof, by testimony of the witnesses, that the will was signed by the deceased and was signed of his or her own free will. If the court approved the probate, the will was transcribed by the clerk into a Will Book in much the same manner that a deed was transcribed into a Deed Book. The will was assigned a book and page number, and was indexed under the name of the deceased. The original will also remained in the courthouse records; it was not returned to the family, as was an original deed. That original will, and other loose documents that would be created in the following months, in many states created a “probate packet,” which is hopefully still in the courthouse. If so, the index should have a column for File Number so that the packet can be located.

The original loose papers in the probate packet should always be examined, if they do exist. Here you will find the original will (important to your search if the clerk's transcribed copy in the Will Book has an error). If your ancestor could write, the original packet might reward you with his or her original signature. The heirs may have signed receipts for their portions of the estate, providing additional signatures. If an heir was a married woman, the receipts often give the name of her husband, because he signed “in right of his wife” since by law he controlled the couple's assets. Other valuable documents are also included.

But He Didn't Leave a Will …

If the person died intestate (that is, without a will), the first record was usually when a relative (or creditor) came into court and requested permission to administer the estate. A variety of records could be generated from such actions, but these were not always indexed. To find them, you might have to do a page-by-page search of the record books. Search also for an administration packet, similar to the probate packets already mentioned. The index should have a file number to these records.

Checking the Estate Records

Keep in mind that you are seeking one of two types of records: a testate estate (with a will), or an intestate estate (without a will), often called an administration proceeding.

Each generates a variety of additional records. You may find a petition to initiate the estate process, bonds for the executor or administrator in case they don't fulfill their duties, inventories of the decedent's estate, accounts listing all that was owed and due to the estate, petitions for the sale of the real estate of the deceased, estate sales when the property of the estate was sold at public auction, distribution of the estate, receipts of the heirs for their portion, and others. Each can provide wonderful leads, and a rare insight into the lives of your ancestors. The inventory may, by the tools listed, give clues to the trades of your ancestors; you'll be provided a glimpse into their education by the books they owned; and you'll find other intriguing bits of information.

Letting the Published Indexes Assist

The classic in published estate indexes is Clayton Torrence's Virginia Wills and Administrations 1632-1800, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1965), published as an index to the early estates of Virginia. Others have created indexes to some other states: the wills of North Carolina, the estates of Ohio, and so on. Look for them in libraries.

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