May 29, 2023


Probate records refer to the official documents filed with a court to administer the estate of someone who has passed away. These records are essential in determining the distribution of assets and liabilities of the deceased person according to their last will or state laws. Probate records can offer a wealth of information about family relationships, property holdings, debts, and other valuable genealogical data.

The details contained in these records can potentially help researchers uncover significant family history, solve mysteries, and fill in gaps in their ancestral knowledge. In this article, we will dive deeper into probate records to explore their significance in genealogy research and how to access them.



Probate records are legal documents that deal with the distribution of a person’s assets after their death. These records are used to establish the validity of a will and to determine how a person’s property is to be distributed. Probate records help to settle disputes among family members and other parties who have an interest in the estate.

These records may include a variety of documents, such as wills, deeds, and other legal papers related to the administration of the estate. The information contained in probate records can be especially valuable to genealogists, historians, and researchers interested in tracing family histories or studying the social and economic history of a particular region.

Probate records are important because they serve as a record of a person’s final wishes and help ensure that those wishes are carried out as intended. They can also provide valuable information about family relationships and the distribution of wealth in a particular community or region. The legal proceedings that accompany probate can be complex and time-consuming, but they are an important part of protecting the rights of all parties involved.

There are several types of probate records that may be of interest to researchers. One type, known as an inventory, lists all of the deceased person’s assets, including real estate, personal property, and any debts owed. Another type, known as a guardianship record, details the appointment of a guardian for a minor or incapacitated adult. Other types of probate records may include letters testamentary, which grant authority to an executor to carry out the terms of a will, and letters of administration, which appoint an administrator to manage an estate when there is no will. Researchers may also find information in probate records related to the distribution of slaves, the settling of debts, and the payment of taxes.

Locating Probate Records


Archives and repositories play an integral role in maintaining probate records. These locations are storehouses for records that date back decades, even centuries, making them valuable sources of information for genealogists and historians. An archive typically refers to a collection of records that were created by the courts or other government entities.

These records may include wills, inventories, and distribution records. The larger archives may have records from multiple jurisdictions or courts, making them particularly useful for those looking for records that may have been lost or destroyed over time. Repositories, on the other hand, may be smaller and more focused on a particular geographic area or type of record.

In addition to physical archives and repositories, many have begun to digitize their records and make them available online. This has greatly improved access to probate records for those unable to travel to a physical location.

Online archives and repositories vary in the types of records and jurisdictions covered, so individuals should plan to search multiple sites to get a complete picture of their ancestor’s probate record. Attention should be paid to the sources of the material, in order to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information.

One important archive for probate records is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). This organization has millions of records available to the public, including probate records from various courts throughout the United States. NARA also has regional facilities that can be searched for local records, making it a valuable resource for genealogists and other researchers. Another major archive is the FamilySearch website, which offers free access to many probate records from around the world.

Researchers may also find valuable probate records at state and local archives or repositories. For example, the New York State Archives has extensive collections of probate records from across the state. These records include wills, petitions, and other documents related to the settlement of estates. Other archives and repositories with large collections of probate records include the Library of Congress, the Maryland State Archives, the Illinois State Archives, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Overall, archives and repositories are essential for those researching probate records. Physical archives and repositories give researchers access to original records and other valuable documents not available online. Online archives and repositories have made many records easier to access, but users should be cautious of the accuracy and completeness of the information provided. By using a combination of physical and online resources, researchers can gain a more complete understanding of their ancestor’s probate record and the settlement of their estate.

Contents of Probate Records


Wills are legal documents that contain the final wishes of a deceased individual concerning the distribution of their assets and properties. They are a critical component of probate records as they offer insight into family relationships, social status, and economic backgrounds.

Wills can be helpful in tracing ancestral lines and identifying heirs and beneficiaries. They often include the names of spouses, children, grandchildren, and other family members, as well as the identification of personal property and real estate.

Wills can also provide valuable historical and local information about the deceased, such as their occupation, education, and religious beliefs. In addition, they can be used to explore societal trends, such as changes in inheritance laws and patterns of property ownership. Researchers should be aware that not all individuals create a will, and some may have created multiple wills during their lifetime that can create ambiguity as to which should be followed.


The subsection Inventories provides valuable insights into the assets and possessions of the deceased. It lists all the items owned by the deceased and their respective values, including personal effects, livestock, and crops. These records also provide detailed accounts of debts owed or owed to the deceased.

Additionally, inventories can establish the social and economic status of the deceased and the community in which they lived. The types of items listed can give hints about the deceased’s profession and lifestyle. They can even suggest relations between the deceased and others they interacted with.

For example, if a deceased person’s inventory includes goods associated with their profession, such as carpentry tools, it shows that the individual was likely a carpenter, and the tools may have been passed down to an apprentice or family member. In summary, inventories can provide a wealth of information about the lifestyles, professions, and personal connections of the deceased, making them an essential resource for genealogical research, personal history, and social context.

Letters of Administration

The subsection Letters of Administration pertains to the legal process of appointing an individual to administer the estate of a deceased person who died without leaving a will. The appointed individual, known as the administrator, is responsible for paying any debts owed by the estate and distributing the remaining assets according to state law. Letters of Administration contain valuable genealogical information, including the name of the deceased, the date of death, and the name of the administrator.

Additionally, Letters of Administration may contain information regarding the deceased’s immediate family members, their place of residence, and possessions owned at the time of death. These genealogical clues can help genealogists discover long-lost relatives or confirm relationships. Lastly, Letters of Administration establish the chain of custody for the estate’s assets, which can be helpful in tracing property ownership or to confirm or disprove kinship claims. Therefore, Letters of Administration serve as a critical resource for genealogists and historians alike.

Guardianship Records

Guardianship Records are legal documents that give an appointed guardian power over an individual who is not capable of making their own decisions, often a minor or an incapacitated adult. These types of records can be found in probate court documents and include information about the guardian, the ward, and the relationship between them. The records may also contain information about property owned by the ward and how it was managed by the guardian.

Additionally, guardianship records may provide details about the ward’s living situation and care, including medical needs and treatment received. In many cases, guardianship records can provide important information about family relationships and the dynamics between family members.

Researchers can use these records to gain insight into the lives of those under legal guardianship and to trace family relationships across generations. Through the use of guardianship records, researchers can reconstruct the social and legal contexts in which families lived and gain a deeper understanding of the role of guardianship in family life throughout history.

Using Probate Records for Genealogy

Research Strategies

Probate records provide a wealth of information for those who are researching their family tree. While these records can be a valuable resource, they can also be difficult to navigate, particularly for those who are new to genealogy. To effectively utilize probate records in genealogy research, researchers must employ a number of different strategies.

One effective strategy is to begin by searching for the probate records for an individual’s immediate family members, such as their parents or siblings. This can help to provide a baseline understanding of the family’s history and can serve as a jumping-off point for further research.

Another important strategy is to read each record in its entirety, rather than just skimming for key pieces of information. Often times, probate records will contain information that is not readily apparent, such as the location of a family home or the specific relationships between family members. Finally, researchers should also make an effort to seek out probate records from multiple sources, rather than relying solely on one set of records. This can help to provide a more complete understanding of the family’s history and can identify potential discrepancies or inconsistencies between different records.

By employing these strategies and using probate records effectively, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of their family history and uncover valuable insights into the lives of their ancestors.

Case Studies

Case studies are an essential component of understanding how probate records can be used in genealogy research. These case studies provide examples of how other researchers have leveraged probate records to uncover valuable information about their ancestors. One such example is the case of Jane Doe, whose will revealed that she had an illegitimate child who was not mentioned in any other family record. This information allowed her descendants to fill a gap in their family tree and prompted further research into the identity of the child’s father.

Another case study is that of John Smith, whose probate record revealed the distribution of his estate among his heirs. His will provided insight into the family dynamics and relationships at the time of his death. Further research into the beneficiaries listed in his probate record uncovered previously unknown relatives and led to the discovery of a long-lost branch of the Smith family.

The case of Sarah Adams illustrates the importance of examining probate records in conjunction with other sources. Despite being listed in her father’s will, Sarah’s name was not found in any other family record. However, a newspaper obituary for her sister provided mention of “the late Sarah Adams,” confirming her existence and providing vital information for further research into her life.

These case studies demonstrate the value of probate records in genealogy research. By examining these records in detail and using them in combination with other sources, researchers can uncover previously unknown details about their ancestors and family relationships.

Conclusion of Probate Records


In genealogy research, probate records represent a critical source of information for understanding the lives of ancestors. Probate records are legal documents that record a deceased person’s assets, liabilities, and the distribution of their estate amongst heirs. These records can include wills, letters of administration, inventories, settlements, and bonds.

They provide a snapshot of a person’s life, including their relationships, property ownership, and economic status. Probate records are especially useful in establishing kinships, tracking migration patterns, and identifying potential family members.

They can also provide insights into the social and economic conditions of the time, including gender roles, inheritance laws, and economic trends. For future research, it would be valuable to explore the ways that probate records can be used to contextualize broader historical trends, such as demographic changes or economic fluctuations.

By analyzing probate records alongside other genealogical sources, researchers can gain a more nuanced understanding of the lives of their ancestors and the society in which they lived.

Future Research

Future research on probate records should focus on innovative technologies and analytical tools to improve the efficiency and accuracy of genealogical research. One promising area of research is the development of machine learning algorithms for automated extraction of key information from probate records. This would enable researchers to quickly search and analyze large volumes of records, optimizing data collection for genealogical research and creating more opportunities for historical analysis.

Another area of research that warrants exploration is the use of digital imaging and preservation technologies to enhance the accessibility and preservation of probate records. Implementing these technologies would enable researchers to access and analyze digitized records from any location, eliminating the logistical challenges associated with physical access and allowing for more streamlined collaboration among genealogists and historians.

Finally, future research should focus on expanding the range of probate records available for analysis. While probate records are invaluable resources for genealogical research, only a fraction of available records have been transcribed, digitized, or made available for public access. Efforts should be made to identify and collect probate records that are currently stored in archives or private collections, and to ensure that these records are made accessible for genealogical research.

As the importance of probate records continues to grow in the field of genealogy research, it is essential for researchers to remain at the forefront of technological innovations and analytical methods. By exploring new avenues for research and implementing cutting-edge technologies, genealogists and historians can continue to uncover new insights and make important contributions to our understanding of the past.

Probate Records FAQs

1. What are probate records?

Probate records refer to legal documents that establish the official validation of a will and determine the distribution of the deceased’s assets, debts, and properties according to the law.

2. Why are probate records important?

Probate records are essential for family historians, genealogists, and other researchers who are tracing the history of individuals. These records also provide information about the estate of the deceased, including the value of their assets and any outstanding debts.

3. How can I find probate records?

You can find probate records in several places, including probate courts, county courthouses, and state archives. Some records are available online from genealogy and history websites, but others may require an in-person visit.

4. What information can I expect to find in probate records?

Probate records typically include information about the deceased’s heirs, debts, assets, and properties. They may also include wills, letters of administration, and other legal documents related to the administration of the estate.

5. Are probate records public records?

In most cases, probate records are public records that are accessible to anyone who wishes to view them. However, some records may be restricted or sealed by the court for privacy or other reasons.

6. How far back do probate records go?

The availability of probate records varies by jurisdiction, but they can date back to the 16th century in some areas. However, the completeness and accuracy of records may vary over time and by location.

About the Author

As a native Washingtonian, Carlos Reyes’ journey in the real estate industry began more than 15 years ago when he started an online real estate company. Since then, he’s helped more than 700 individuals and families as a real estate broker achieve their real estate goals across Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC.

Carlos now helps real estate agents grow their business by teaching business fundamentals, execution, and leadership.

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