August 12th, 2011

No Pain No Gain – Finding Family Treasures Within the Purgatory We Call Probate

I recently read an article which told the story of how a woman had waited, in fact fought, for her husband’s death certificate for three months and had still not received it. The lack of a death certificate means that she has been; unable to initiate probate of her husband’s estate, had the joint bank accounts she held with her husband frozen by her bank, and been unable to get refunds for vacations they had booked together. “It was an absolute nightmare” she said in the article. “You can’t do anything without a death certificate; it’s the first thing everyone asks to see. When it’s your spouse, all financial matters are connected to getting a death certificate”. You can read the Full Article Here.

As my heart went out to this victim of circumstance (the delay in receiving the death certificate was caused by the closure of a government forensics lab before a needed toxicology test on her husband could be performed), I began to think of my own experience with death and probate. Though it is not a pleasant subject, the matter of probate must eventually be dealt with by nearly all of us at some point in time, but believe it or not, there are some valuable genealogical gems hidden within the probate process, one of them coming in the form of probate packs.

Unwrapping a Probate Packet

Some of the most valuable sets of genealogical records are generated at the time of a person’s death, and perhaps the most treasured of these documents for genealogists are probate records. The collective records involved in the settling of a person’s estate upon their death are known as probate packets. Probate packets will contain a variety of documents, depending on the size of the person’s estate and other personal variables, however all contain a copy of the deceased’s will. Some jurisdictions are especially demanding when it comes to what should be included in the packets, and in such areas you may discover a wealth of documents, some useful some not. Other areas are unfortunately not so careful in their record keeping practices, and documents are often lost or misfiled – I can confirm that by personal experience!

What to Look for in Probate Packs

If you are fortunate enough to discover a probate packet while searching for your ancestors, it is important to not only thoroughly examine the contents of the packet, but also the court records for that particular probate case. It is not uncommon for people to find records pertaining to their ancestor misfiled in the records of another person whose case was held that same day, or handled by the same judge. Examining the minutes will clue you as to where else you might look should your ancestors probate records seem to be missing something. In general however, opening a probate packet can be like Christmas for a genealogist due to what might lie within. Some of the items you could find in a probate packet are:

  1. Wills – The central item in any probate packet is the will of the deceased. Wills can lead you to other ancestors through their revelation of beneficiaries , executors or trustees, can name siblings and spouses, and can also reveal what a person’s religious affiliation may have been if they have left part of their estate to a specific organization or institution.
  2. Final Disposition – This is the final distribution report of the estate, indicating what was left to whom and when they received it. Usually it will include the names and addresses of all the beneficiaries or recipients of the estate. Consequently you may be able to locate additional records of additional ancestors
  3. Accounting Reports – Accounting reports can provide further names of claimants against the estate, or those responsible for debts of the estate – often these people are relatives.
  4. Auction Records – Sometimes an estate is liquidated via auction in order to raise funds to pay outstanding debts r taxes. The records of such auctions will contain valuable information about the contents of the estate, its value, and the names of bidders and purchasers who may have been family members.
  5. Guardianship Papers – Widows or children who may have been placed into the custody of others on the death of the deceased will be named as well as those entrusted with their care. If there are no names recorded in the particular documents you find, there will be clues as to where to find them such as; family court documents and case numbers, guardianship petitions, or paperwork substantiating the legal appointment of a guardian.
  6. Letters Testamentary – If this isn’t in the probate packet you locate it may well be in the court records covering the probate hearing. Though someone may appoint a specific person as executor of their will, the court may find them unacceptable or unqualified and may appoint someone else. This document will inform you of who the actual executor is, and why the named executor did not take up the position – could they have died, or disqualified themselves?
  7. Estate Inventory – As the inventory reveals the financial condition of the deceased, it may thus be an indicator of their social standing. The presence of tractors, plows and the like will indicate that the person was a farmer, an anvil and heavy hammers that he was a blacksmith etc. Books found in 18th century manifests generally indicate that the person was educated, while if there are lots of clothing and furniture the person was obviously wealthy. All of these clues can direct you to other records, which may in turn lead to other ancestors.
  8. Beneficiaries Roll – The actual finalist of beneficiaries may be different from those named in the will. Some of the original beneficiaries could have died, married, changed their name, or simply were not located. In such cases the inheritance would pass on to their descendants or spouses, again giving you the opportunity to further trace your family tree.

There will always be clues hidden away within probate packets that can lead you to other records or other ancestors. Therefore it is critical to consider them in conjunction with other records that may be associated with them such as minutes and court records. Follow your instincts and keep an eye out for inconsistencies that may reveal changes in beneficiaries and such – when one genealogical door closes, another invariably opens!

Read our article How Probate and Wills Work to further your understanding of Wills and Probate packs.