A will is just one type of record made near the end of someone’s life. New genealogists sometimes get frustrated when they cannot locate an ancestor’s will, but they need not worry! Here are a few ideas when you can’t find the ‘will’ to go on.
Dying Intestate vs. Testate
If a person dies with a will in place they are referred to as dying “testate.” If a person dies with no will it is called dying “intestate”.
When a will is written, the writer usually names an executor or executrix. Executor refers to a male and executrix refers to a female. When an individual dies without a will, the court will assign an executor or executrix. An executor/executrix is not always a relative, but it could be. You always want to be sure to examine the executor/executrix of a will or estate to determine a possible kinship.
Where to Look for a Will
Wills are often recorded in a Will Book on the county level, however, that is not always the case. In fact, I have seen will records appear in books entitled Civil Minutes, Journals, Wills, Probate, Estate, and Inventories. I am sure there are other titles I haven’t listed, so be sure to check them all and ask a knowledgeable person in your targeted county.
If you can’t easily get to the county seat of your research area, you may find estate records, will books, probate packets and more online at FamilySearch.org. To learn how to do that, watch this helpful video:
Whether you visit the county courthouse or research on line, be sure to have someway of creating or saving a copy of the will and other probate records you find. [Tip: If visiting a courthouse and it is permissible, use your smartphone camera to take pictures of the document instead of paying for Xerox copies.]
If a courthouse does not allow smartphones, you may need to pay to have copies made. Be sure to bring lots of change and small bills. Also, bring paper and pen in case they do not allow any copies to be made. In this way, you can at least abstract vital information from the records.
My Ancestor Didn’t Have a Will: What Now?
I have heard people say, “My ancestor didn’t own anything so he wouldn’t have a will.” That is a wrong assumption. Though he or she may not have owned property, there were bills to be paid, receipts to be filed, and sometimes minor children to be assigned guardians. These types of proceedings are part of probate and can usually be found in what is called an “estate file” or a “probate packet.”
An estate file or probate packet might be a bunch of loose papers in an envelope or in a small box. Sometimes, these files may be kept “off-site” and require a courthouse worker to go to another building to pull them. For this reason, call ahead of time and ask the procedure for pulling such records. FamilySearch has begun digitizing these loose papers in some counties, but not very many. At this time, estate files or probate packets may only be found by visiting the courthouse or off-site facility.
What Information Can Be Found in the Will?
Every person writes a will differently and so the information contained within a written will can vary person to person. Typically, this record will name loved ones, heirs, or even someone they didn’t like! I once saw a will where the man bequeathed a “board with which his son-in-law hit [him] in the head” to the ungrateful son-in-law whom he did not much care for. Interestingly, naming the son-in-law was helpful in identifying the decedent’s daughter!
A will may give you a death date or a close approximation. A will is written while a person is yet alive and the document is typically dated. After the person dies, the will is “proven.” If you compare the date the will was written with the date the will was proven, you can narrow the death date down considerably.
A will may mention or indicate there was more than one marriage. For instance, a man may mention his children by his “first wife Sarah.” It could also hold information regarding deceased persons such as “the children of my deceased son Henry.” In this way, a will can be used as a secondary source to other individuals’ vital information.
What Can Be Found in an Estate File or Probate Packet?
The documents and records found in an estate file or probate packet are endless. Receipts, bills, inventory, affidavits, letters, and more. In one of my research cases, heirs listed in the will were only mentioned as “sons and daughters” and not by their given names. However, in the probate packet, the heirs were required to sign a paper stating they did not want to be the executor of the estate. On this paper were listed all the heirs by not only their first names, but their surnames, which was quite wonderful considering some of them were married women. Further, the heirs had to list their current residences.
Guardianship papers, or records, were made when the deceased had minor children. This was done even if the mother of the children was still alive. In early years, a guardian was typically a man, perhaps a relative or close neighbor. This man would agree to care for the well-being of the child(ren) and sometimes their inheritance until they were of age. A minor was anyone under the age of 21 who was not yet married, though this definition changed over time.
Guardianship papers can be a proof of parentage when no other record exists. Even when you find no will and no probate packet, a guardianship paper can still exist. These records are generally kept on a county level and can be found in the Probate Court in the county you are researching or (in many cases) you can find them online at FamilySearch.org.
I am certain many of us have overlooked at least one of the many types of probate records that exist. You never know what piece of information or clue you are missing by not finding all that is available! Remember, even when there is no will, there is still a way. Here’s to some dusty days in the county courthouse or endless hours on your home computer!