If there are any genealogy records that most people don’t try to find, transcribe and understand as they should, it is probate records. There are few that are online, though FamilySearch does have some they just aren’t indexed, and going to a courthouse and wading through records can seem intimidating. But if there is one type of record you should try to overcome any hesitancy around searching, it is probate records. They can help clear up relationships within families, they can give you an inventory of what your ancestor owned, they will give at least some names to family members, land ownership will be provided and township and range will be listed on most land bequeathed to persons, and once you get used to reading them and familiar with terminology and the legal rules at the time your ancestor died you may get a glimpse into family dynamics.
A few important terms are a good place to start, though this will be very simple. Probate rules and terminology can be much more complex depending on the place and time. If a person died and left a will, they died ‘testate”. If they died without a will, they died “intestate”. If the person left a will and named an executor, that person or persons administered the will. If the person didn’t leave a will, or an executor was not named in the will, the court appointed an administrator. Our ancestors owned both personal property and real property and these were often distributed separately. Probate is the procedure to prove a will is valid or invalid. Probate records may or may not include administration or guardianship papers. These will likely be separate files and may need to be searched for separately.
Currently, in Florida, the circuit court has jurisdiction over probate procedures. The clerk of the county court is the custodian of records. Prior to 1845 and statehood, it is possible that the territorial papers will hold some records. Unfortunately, record loss is substantial in probate records in Florida. The losses that I am aware of for the counties in the panhandle are: Calhoun Co. (1838-1876), Holmes Co. (1848-1901), Jackson Co. (1822-1847), Santa Rosa Co. (1842-1877), Walton Co. (1824-1881) and Washington Co. (1825-1879).
If you find ledger entries online at FamilySearch these are not all of the documents. Only the important documents were recorded into the ledger but clues may abound in the unrecorded documents that can be found in the probate packet. Obtain copies of the entire packet if at all possible. You may find any number of important clues within the pages of both the recorded and unrecorded documents.
Even if you think your ancestor was too poor to leave a will, you should look. People left wills for different reasons. If they owned a debt to someone, that person could request the court to inventory the deceased person’s property and ensure that all debts were paid. So, even if you don’t find a will, there could be administration papers. Be sure to search for both.
To be completely honest, probate records are challenging and I am still what I would term a newbie. Each state can have different rules, and different time periods in American history also handled wills and probate differently. Reading the materials in a probate record can be incredibly frustrating. The best approach is to transcribe it word for word, taking your time. Then read the will from your transcription. Then read and study it slowly and carefully. Abstract the important points into a separate document. Then move those important data elements to your system of maintaining your family information after you think you understand what it is telling you. Look up words you don’t understand. There may be a clue there. Don’t assume you know what the word meant at the time it was used. Word meanings have changed over time.
One last word. I have met incredibly helpful folks at the Clerk of the Court and some not so helpful. Even if you feel a bit frustrated by not getting much help, try to be understanding and patient. Local governments have been struggling since the last recession and funding is never enough. Different counties have prioritized digitizing records and restricting assess to original documents. If you have to order copies you may need to be patient waiting for them. If you have to fill out a form, try to be concise and accurate. These folks aren’t mind-readers. If you need help, ask politely and be grateful and say thank you.
See you next week
- FamilySearch website- you will need an account to do more than a basic search
- Family Search, Florida Probate Records – scrolling all the way to the bottom and click where it says “click here”. You will need an account (it’s free). You will be directed to a page with the list of counties with records. These are not indexed. See a previous post for suggestions on how to find records.
- Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures by Christine Rose.