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Probate: Genealogy Goldmine with a Steep Learning Curve

Start learning about probate, today!

Here's another suggestion for free at-home genealogy.
Do you know what types of probate records should exist in a specific time and place you are interested in?


  • Although probate is similar in many locations, the names of the same type of record can be different. Then there's the method it was recorded and stored (as loose papers or copied into a bound book).
  • On top of that you don't know if the records were preserved or where they ended up. That can make a difference in where you can access them today (for example, microfilm might have been made of records sent to a state repository for storage but not of the records in the courthouse or maybe only the bound books were digitized or microfilmed but not loose papers). 
It's a major group of records to learn about.

A place you can start today, at-home, for free, is looking at the FamilySearch catalog or a similar catalog for the state archives (an archives for the jurisdiction the records would fall under).

Records might exist but not be located in either of these repositories but it's a starting place.


  • Instead of focusing on researching in the records, focus on what you need to learn about them.
  • Write down questions you have.
  • Start looking for more information online. 
    • Usually, you can find general information about the location (for example, in the U.S., state by state info).
    • Sometimes you can find very specific information about what exists for the exact location (in the U.S. the county or city/town, whichever is appropriate).

Often genealogists look for a will or a major group of probate records but never learn about all the small clues found in the related probate records.

Sometimes they spend tons of time hunting through probate records when clues from other records indicate there shouldn't be probate

It's not the easiest genealogy topic to learn all the ins and outs but it's worth learning about, even if you don't master it.

Start by simply seeing what exists for a time and place of interest and then seek answers to the questions you have.






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2 comments

  1. Thank you for this great intro to probate records. I was fortunate last year to locate 2 probate docs for my 3x great grandfather in New York. I realized since then that there should have been a record regarding his minor children. Checking back... There was nothing. Any suggestion as to what my next step might be? Thanks again... I'm off to Family Search to do some digging. Linda

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  2. Hi Linda! I don't have a specific suggestion. I know New York is a location that calls the records something different than what I'm used to. When I need to work in New York probate, I start with a guide to make sure I don't miss something. So, my suggestion is really a question. Are you familiar with the structure of the probate records? Are you sure you looked in the right place for the record regarding his minor children? If you did, there are lots of cases of a record that should have been created not being created. I'd also see if you can find a guide about the exact location. Sometimes something unusual happened in a specific location (for example, records that should have been in a book of probate records got put in a deed book for a few years, or a set of the records ended up stored in the wrong office, or something equally random that you'd never be able to "guess"). With a problem like this, regardless if it's probate records or other records, you want to be sure you understand what should have happened and you looked in the right place. Once you've done that, look for existing information about the exact records. You're hoping to discover a known anomaly so you can find the record even though it's in the wrong place. You might discover that record is known to be missing (I have a county my ancestors passed through where really random deed books were destroyed by the court so I know not to hunt for those deed books). If you can't learn more specifics, I would place that project on the backburner for a time when I can hunt for the records (such as a visit to the courthouse where I can look through the records myself and see if there are anomalies---this isn't always an option even if you can visit the courthouse, they may not let you hunt through the records, they might only "serve" specific records). Make detailed notes to yourself so you don't waste time looking at the same thing again if the results will be the same. You also want the notes to let you know if you should look at the same records again or perhaps look at them in a different format (I've used some microfilm where I really wanted to see the original books due to poor filming and possible missing information). I hope that helps!

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