Unearth Wills and Estate Records
After you've learned the details of your ancestor's birth, marriage, and death, you'll want to check to see if he left behind any estate records when he died. While “estate” seems to imply a large amount of property, estates are actually the sum total of an individual's possessions, including both property and debts, left behind at the time of death. The amount of real or personal property required to necessitate a court proceeding is determined by state or local laws in effect at the time of death. Not everyone will have owned enough property to generate estate records, but your ancestor also didn't necessarily need to be well-off to have had his estate processed through the court system. If he had outstanding debts, property that needed to be divided, or anything else that needed to be settled after his death, it's likely that some record of that still exists.
Estate records document the processing and disbursement of an estate, whether the individual died testate (with a will) or intestate (without a will). If your ancestor left a will, it would normally be presented to the court by an heir, creditor, or other interested party after his death. The court would hold proceedings and hear testimony to verify the validity of the will in a process known as probate. The court also officially appointed an executor — generally an individual or individuals named in the will by the testator — to handle the affairs of the estate. Often, executors were relatives or friends, but the executor or executrix could be anyone the testator considered trustworthy enough to handle his estate. Once the court approved the probate, the will was then generally recorded (transcribed) into a Will Book by the court clerk. In most cases, the original will (or a copy of it) also remained with the court, along with any other papers generated during the process of settling the estate, in a file often referred to as a probate packet.
When an individual dies without a will (which happens more frequently than you might think), the court generally appoints an administrator to handle the estate, and the distribution of property is made according to local law. These intestate proceedings, often called administrations, generate similar paperwork to the probate packets discussed previously, although they are sometimes referred to as administration packets.
For hands-on experience with estate records, the “Analyze an 1804 Inventory” case study at History Matters (
What exactly can estate records tell you beyond the fact that your ancestor died? The documents found in an estate, administration, or probate packet might include a complete inventory of the property of the deceased, a list of debts and creditors, appraisals, receipts, newspaper notices calling for legal heirs to come forward, witness testimony, letters from attorneys representing heirs, a copy of the will (if one exists), and other miscellaneous papers related to the settlement of the estate. Each of these pieces of paper represents the potential for learning more about your ancestor — especially the names of relatives (including the married names of daughters) and where they were each living. The list of personal property can be especially interesting, filled with items such as crockery, feather beds, pigs, brooms, and the like, which provides insight into the life your ancestor lived.
Estate records can usually be found with the court records of the county where the deceased was last living. Early records may have been moved to other repositories, such as the state archives. Check with the county clerk or the local genealogical or historical society to learn where the estate records are maintained. Some wills, especially those prior to about 1850 or so, have been published online, either in image or transcription form. Try a search such as massachusetts wills online and you'll turn up sites such as Wills of Our Essex County Ancestors (
Other examples of online wills and estate records include Probate Database Search (
Laws in most Eastern and Midwestern states, derived from the common law of England, allowed the female widow a dower right, or share (usually one-third), of her husband's estate for her lifetime. When a mortgage or other debts existed, dower rights may have held up final settlement of the estate until after the widow's death. When no estate record is found, a search of land records may turn up the division of land necessary to give the widow her “dower third.” Research dower rights in your state and time period of interest to learn more.
Searchable databases on the no frills SAMPUBCO website (