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Without a doubt, some of the most valuable court records for genealogists are those dealing with probate matters. Probate refers to the processes of transferring one's property and legal responsibilities and providing for the care of one's loved ones. Many types of documents are filed with the probate court to complete the legal action. Each document fulfilled a certain purpose when it was originally created and some have more research value than others.
Probate case files generally contain a wide variety of documents. A will generally names spouses, children, and other members of the household such as hired help, grandchildren, or distant relatives. A will often indicates the ages of these individuals and their marital status. Wills are particularly useful for tracking daughters in a family because they state a woman's married surname. A will generally describes property—both personal and real estate.
In addition to these "hard facts," a will can you give you an understanding of your ancestor's personality, family ties, and economic conditions. To gain this type of information, ask yourself these questions when you are examining a will—what does the language or style of the will reveal about your ancestor's level of education? Was your ancestor involved in charitable organizations or political parties as attested to by his bequest to such groups? What provisions were made for the widow? Was she economically restricted if she re-married? What were the family relationships as evidenced by the distribution of the estate, or did all individuals inherit equally?
Many researchers mistakenly stop using probate records when they locate an ancestor's will. Other probate records contain just as much valuable information. The administrator of an estate, whether court appointed or designated in the will, must submit a variety of reports to the court. These include a petition to the court to begin the process; a proving of the will's validity, if one exists; the posting of bond by the administrator; inventorying and appraising the property; appointing guardians and providing a final accounting of the distribution of the estate.
Some of these documents may be found in probate case files while others were copied in books by the probate clerk. One example of a bound record is an order book. As you might suspect by the name, the order book records the judge's final decisions. If a will does not exist, this is another source that documents names and relationships of family members. Probate inventories provide a wealth of detail about an individual and a household. The inventory is actually a listing and appraisal of all personal and real estate property. Researchers have taken great pleasure at examining inventories and finding a listing for eight blue flowered china cups valued at $2.00 and then realizing this description matches the family heirlooms passed down through the generations, and that are now sitting in their own china cabinet!
Another record generated by the probate clerk was the "judgment on claim." These volumes recorded the claims individuals made against estates. Many of the entries are mundane and document money owed to various individuals. But how exciting the entry that reads $5.00 owed St. John's Evangelical Church for a funeral sermon. Imagine if you did not know the name of your ancestor's church, what a find! Similarly, the claims for graves made by specific cemeteries.