Research Corner: Probate Records and Wills

According to FamilySearch, probate records are "court records created after an individual's death that relates to a court's decisions regarding the distribution of the estate to the heirs or creditors and the care of dependents." This process occurred regardless of whether an individual died with a will, meaning that they died testate, or without a well (intestate).

Probate records may include inventories, wills, bonds, receipts, administrations, and distributions. They oftentimes pre-date the official keeping of vital records, allowing researchers to uncover family relationships and approximate death dates. In instances where the deceased owned slaves, an estate inventory may list enslaved people by name and age.

Wills, which may be found in will books, or in a probate file, can also reveal close family and associates; can outline land and property held by the deceased; and can give a sense of the priorities of the deceased.

Probate records and wills are usually recorded at the county level; you will want to start by looking at court records in the closest jurisdiction to your ancestor's residence. Also be sure to look at property records, particularly deeds, as records of estate transfers can sometimes only be found in those.

How to Find Probate Records in Our Databases
  • Search probate, wills, or estate records in our catalog, opens a new window. Or, do an advanced search, opens a new window. Search by call number, and use the search phrase "Gen*.360" to see all of the probate records in our collection.
  • In FamilySearch, opens a new window, many probate records are unindexed and available for browsing. The best way to navigate to these is to search the catalog, opens a new window by location, and then browse by record category.
  • In American Ancestors, you can search their probate records by selecting "Court, Land and Probate Records" from the Search menu at the top of the homepage.
  • In Ancestry, opens a new window, click on Search, then All Categories. In the sidebar, choose More under the category Tax, Criminal, Land & Wills. Under Narrow by Category, choose Wills & Probate, Estate & Guardian Records. You can then conduct a search, or browse by location.
  • In HeritageQuest, opens a new window, choose Search, and then choose Wills and Probates to view collections of probate records broken out by state.