November 13th, 2011

Estimating Your Ancestors Time of Death

I previously wrote about some of the methods one could use to estimate the time of an ancestors birth, but times of death can also lead to other genealogical leads. As with birth records, times of death were not recorded until after Civil Registration was enacted, and records of those occurring before such time can be hard to find. As with birth times, times of death can also be estimated, and Probate Records can be especially useful in doing so.

Using Probate Records to Estimate Times of Death

The most common method of estimating time of death using probate records is assuming that a person died sometime between writing their will and it being proved in court. Ah, but what if there is no will, you might ask, and that is indeed a good question. In such a case – dying intestate (without a will) – letters of administration are generally issued by the courts within several weeks of the death. These are for the benefit of creditors, as they would not want to wait very long for payment, so generally they are issued quite speedily. There are cases when delays may occur though; death of an administrator, lost paperwork, sick processing clerks, disputes to the settlement, but more often than not they are issued in the immediate period following death.

Another useful item found in probate packets and effective in estimating death times are receipts. These can be receipts for doctor’s treatments, funeral homes etc, and can generally get you in the ballpark. Let’s take a look at a possible scenario and see if you can figure out when the person may have died.

Let’ say you find a promissory note in a probate packet for John Doe dated June 17, 1878. This would show that he was alive at that time. Next you find a receipt for the construction of his coffin dated November 23, 1878, and a receipt for a doctor’s visit on the 4th of September, 1878. Can you estimate the time period for John Doe? If you said sometime between September 4th 1878 and November 23rd 1878 you would be correct. This can be further narrowed down by looking for the date that his widow or executor signed off on his estate.

Other Methods of Estimating Death Times

There are a few other tested means of estimating times of death, they are as follows:

  1. Large Gaps Between the Births of Children – Such instances (usually found in Census Records) can reveal the death of a child or a wife during child birth. This information can lead you to discover remarriages where the wife carried the same first name.
  2. Circuit Court Minutes – Don’t overlook these important documents, as sometimes they will record a death that was not involved in a probate process.
  3. Tax Lists – These can help you to track a person over distinct time periods. If you are tracing an ancestor and the trail suddenly grows cold, it is a good idea to consult taxation records for the area he or she lived in. Once locating their name in tax records, trace it until it no longer appears, as there are three reasons for omission that can help you to figure out their time of death; they reached the age of exemption, moved to a different administrative region, or they died. An simple example would be of two men of the same name – John Gibbs Sr., and John Gibbs Jr. appearing in the tax records for 1843. The following year only one John Gibbs appears, and there is no designation of Jr. or Sr. in his listing. It is safe to assume that the older John Gibbs died, but this could only be confirmed by consulting other records such as; deeds, parish registers, and probate and court records to confirm that the elder is the deceased, and that he simply didn’t relocate. Never assume anything in genealogical research always validate your theories with documented evidence.
  4. Legal Transactions Involving Children of the Deceased – If you come across records indicating the redistribution of a person’s property, it is a good indication that they have died. In the case of property being sold and heirs relocating, that could well mean that both parents have died and the children have left their ancestral home. Keep in mind that if a third of the property is not sold, this would indicate that the widow held onto her portion until her death, and when the land or property is completely divided and all offspring re accounted for, the wife of a deceased man has most likely died before him.

So far we’ve covered estimating the times of births and deaths, in my next Blog I’ll discuss how a marriage date can be estimated.