Probate records are those documents found and filed in a probate court. A probate court is responsible for keeping the original Last Will and Testament of a person and keeping original codicils (Will updates) on file for review and inspection. Most probate courts have modernized the probate record-keeping process by automating the retention and review of pleadings, motions, and correspondence filed with the probate court. If you are curious about what documents are filed with the probate court for a deceased person, start by contacting the city/county for the state where the decedent resided (which may be different from where the decedent died) and ask how best to review the probate records. After a time, probate records will be “archived” or stored which usually happens when an estate is closed for a sufficient period of time.
Probate Records Research Steps
1. Determine where the decedent was living at the time of death.
2. Find out where the records for that probate court jurisdiction at that time are now housed. Save yourself steps by using the Internet and the telephone to ask for and find the archive that you want. States and counties often have Web home pages.
3. If necessary, go to the archive.
4. Look in the index for the deceased’s name. This will usually be listed alphabetically by surname (last name). Find the docket number. Usually, the date of probate is also listed, and this is usually fairly close to the date of death.
5. Make a list of files you wish to see and give these to the clerk, who will retrieve the files for you. If the files are old and are in a storage facility off-site, it might take several days for the request to be filled. Anticipate being required to pay a fee to obtain copies of the records.
6. If files are missing, and they sometimes are, probate record books might give some evidence of the probate. Probate record books are not likely to contain all the information that is/was in the actual file.
7. Examine the files and make notes or request copies of them.
8. Return the original file, as you found it, to the clerk.
9. Label and file your findings, being sure to note the name of the archive, address, telephone number, Web site address, and the date you did your research there.
Documents You Might Find in Probate Files
The documents found in a probate file will vary radically. They may range from a single letter to a sheaf of court and family documents. If the file represents proceedings to settle the estate of a deceased, its contents might include…
• a will, if there was one
• codicils (amendments) to the will, if any
• a petition for an executor or administrator
• probate of the will
• a list of heirs or divisees
• an inventory of the deceased’s probate estate at the time of death
• a report of the committee for partition when heirs cannot agree amongst themselves about how to divide the estate
• receipts from heirs and divisees
• a closing statement by the court