This application for administration from Clinton County shows that the deceased died without a will. It is full of genealogical information, and it’s just one page from the probate file for this individual.
About Wills & Probate Records
Dealing with estate records can be very confusing. There is typically a lot of legal jargon used, and the purpose or outcome of a record is not always clear to the layperson. While I am certainly no expert when it comes to legal matters, I will do my best to give you a basic explanation of wills and probate records. Hopefully it will be at least enough of an explanation to get you started with your research.
When an individual dies he or she inevitably leaves behind possessions and/or debts that must be dealt with. This is done in one of two ways. Either the individual left a will detailing how the estate should be handled and who should do the handling (the executor). Or the estate is “intestate” meaning that there was no will or that the will was not a legal will and was not “proved” by the court. Intestate estates are assigned an administrator, usually either a relative or a creditor. In both cases, the proceedings of the estate are dealt with in a court, often called a probate court.
Nearly everyone who owned anything had a probate proceeding, and therefore has probate records out there waiting to be discovered by you.
Accessing Wills & Probate Records
Wills are held by the County Clerk. The clerk’s office typically keeps a copy of each will in a will book. These can be accessed freely at the courthouse in the county where your relative passed away. However, these are copies of the original record, which is likely kept in a probate file. Depending on the year of death, this file may be in archives (either at the courthouse or at some off-site location) or in the clerk’s office. Since the copy may contain clerical errors, it is always best to locate the original whenever possible. Contact the clerk’s office to find out where to begin your search and how to obtain copies of the records. A list of Indiana County Clerks is available here. Most offices will locate, copy, and mail the records to you for a fee. If you do the research yourself, be aware that there will still be a fee for copying the files.
What You’ll Find
Probate records are rich resources. They will contain any bit of information that was necessary for the executor or administrator to determine rightful heirs, establish outstanding debts, and divide the property amongst them. This may include the following.
- The date and cause of death,
- the names of all heirs, including spouses, children, siblings, in-laws, and other relatives,
- the names of friends and neighbors,
- the names of any creditors or debtors,
- an inventory of personal property,
- records from any estate auction (including who bought what and for how much),
- details regarding any real estate owned by the deceased,
- details of military service, religious affiliation, and citizenship,
- and any letters, depositions, and affidavits collected by the executor or administrator during the probate process.
Everybody loves a scandal, and wills are often full of them. If the deceased did not approve of a marriage, thought a child left home too early, preferred one offspring over another, or disinherited a son or daughter for any reason, it will likely be listed in the will. They can be incredibly interesting and enlightening documents, and often give us a glimpse at parts of our ancestors’ lives that would otherwise be hidden from us.
A Few Tips
- Although it may be tempting to take the information in probate records at face value, we must remember that even these records can contain errors or even outright lies. As with all our research, these records are just one piece of the larger puzzle, and all the evidence should be considered before coming to any conclusions.
- Probate records are more common for rural areas than for urban areas, due to the higher likelihood that rural residents owned property.
- Think your relatives were too poor to have owned anything? You may be surprised. Either way, it’s always worth looking for records. It’s part of being a thorough researcher.
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