United States Probate Limitations

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While probate records are one of the most accurate sources of genealogical evidence, they must be used with some caution.

Limitations of probate records[edit | edit source]

The following limitations should be considered when using probate records:

  • Not everyone left an estate that was probated by a court.
  • Not all relatives are listed--usually only the wife and children.
  • Date of death is usually not given.
  • Indexes usually list testator, not heirs or beneficiaries.
  • Information on the residence of relatives is rare.
  • Probate-related records can be filed in more than one cabinet, ledger, or packet and in more than one office.
  • Transcribed records might be incomplete, misread, or incorrectly transcribed so consult the original when possible.
  • Some courthouse indexes are complex enough to require guides to use them. (See the United States Index Systems article.)

Limitations of a will[edit | edit source]

When analyzing a will record, be aware of the following potential problems:

  • Not everyone left a will.
  • The wife mentioned in the will may not be the mother of the children mentioned in the will.
  • The will may omit a deceased child.
  • The will may omit a child who already received his or her inheritance.
  • Maiden names of female spouses are not usually mentioned.
  • Children are not always listed in birth order; sons may be listed before the daughters.
  • Those named are not necessarily related to the testator.
  • There are no every-name indexes for those listed in the will.
  • There may be a problem with lack of punctuation. For example, is Mary Beth one name or two?
  • It can be difficult to determine the difference between married and middle names.
  • Relationships may be misleading:
    Uncle/aunt may be spouses
    Cousin may mean nephew/niece
    Son-in-law could mean stepson or nephew could mean grandson
    Brother and sister may mean brother and sister in the Gospel

Overcoming Limitations[edit | edit source]

The following strategies can be used to overcome these limitations:

  • Don't make assumptions.
  • Look at other records. Analyze the evidence from a variety of records and correlate the results.
  • Search for related transactions that might be found in court records, land records, guardianship records, and vital records.
  • Search other jurisdictions for the related records mentioned above. For instance, land might have been owned in more than one locality, a marriage may have taken place in another county or state, or records might have been transferred to a regional or state repository.

Also see the article, Analyzing Probate Records.

Sources[edit | edit source]

  • Greenwood, Val D. Third edition. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. 2000. Of particular interest are the chapters, "Understanding Probate Records and Basic Legal Terminology," "What About Wills?" and "The Intestate—Miscellaneous Probate Records—Guardianships." FHL Collection
  • Rose, Christine. Courthouse Indexes Illustrated. San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2006. {FHL Collection
  • Rose, Christine. Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures. San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2004. Of particular interest are the chapters, "Estates Galore," "Estate Documents," "Milking Every Clue from Estates," and "Strategies that Work." FHL Collection
  • Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, editors. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Third edition. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc., 2006. Of particular interest is the section, "Probate," pages 268 - 277. FHL Collection