Probate records hold a wealth of information about our ancestors. But when you’re searching, do you just limit yourself to the will (and inventory), and neglect all of the other documents that are part of the probate process? All parts of probate hold potential clues. Here’s a breakdown of other steps that could hold evidence for our family trees:
Petition: The process will start with a petition to the court to start the probate process. This is usually a relative or could be a creditor. Petitions, if they exist, should always be examined.
Hearing: A hearing date will be set by the court to prove the will (or in the case of no will, to administer the estate). The hearing date will usually be published in the local newspaper so all interested parties can have a chance to have their say. If no one contested, the will was proved and ordered recorded,or in the case of no will, an executor is named. Remember also that original wills were retained by the court (unlike deeds which were returned to the owner). Always try to examine original wills if they exist for your locality, versus the one recorded in the will books–transcribing always presents opportunities for error.
Relinquishments/Renunciations: These are interesting sets of records. It could be a executor or administrator relinquishing (or turning down) the duties he or she has been assigned. I found a renunciation for the estate one of my Prather ancestors, and it listed every living heir and where they lived.
Bonds: If a will is proved, the executor posted bond guaranteeing his performance of duties associated with the estate. If no will, the administrator posted bonds. I have found bonds to be extremely valuable, especially in the naming of the individuals who served as securities for those bonds. I have noticed bonds are often recorded in separate books. Usually the court will also approve a notice to creditors to be published in a local newspaper.
Letters Issued: Once the bonds are accepted, the court issued Letters Testamentary (Letters of Administration if intestate). This is the basically the court’s authority in writing for that person to perform those specific duties. Letters are also another set of records I often see grouped together in their own book.
Inventory: Usually the court will appoint three disinterested parties to inventory the estate. These are common records for those of us doing slave research. Just make sure that you search subsequent years ahead–if the case drags on, additions and subtractions are often made to the inventory. I’ve seen slave births be recorded in this way. But don’t neglect the other items int he list. The household items can be powerful measures of social history for that family and give you some insight into what kind of life your ancestor may have led.
Accounts and Sales: I can’t stress the value of this part of probate. Depending on the size of the estate, some will come to an end within a year, while others may drag on for 15 or 20 years, especially if there were minor children involved. During that time, periodic accounting is made to the court by the executor or administrator about the financial status of the estate. This also holds true for the guardianship process, which often mirrors many of these same steps. Again, don’t overlook these sections with regard to slave research–you can find slave sales and sometimes the name of the purchaser as well. Accounts many times are titled “First account”, “Second Account”, “Third and final accounting”, “First and final accounting”, etc.. And always pay close attention to the names of the family members and neighbors who are purchasing items from the estate.
Petitions for Sale: Executors/Administrators may petition the court to sell real estate. They will usually include the reason why. You’ll find many estates going broke who need to sell, or because the land can’t be equally divided among heirs easily.
I have been lucky in Maryland to find books entitled “Docket of Administrations” which listed each individual who had an estate administered, each part of the administration, and each book and page those parts can be found on. So that made life easier for me for that family line. Take full advantage of the wealth of information available in all of the probate process–don’t just limit yourself to wills and inventories. You never know what you might find!