Genealogy Q&A: Finding Wills
4/2/2013
Here are some quick tips for finding your ancestors' wills.
Q. I know wills can be a great resource for genealogy, but I've never looked for one. Where should I look for an ancestor's will?

A. Probate packets (which contain wills if the deceased left one) and wills recorded in will books are held at the county courthouse where the will was filed, unless the records have been transferred to a state archive. They're rarely online.

Not all states call their probate courts the same thing, which can be confusing. The jurisdiction that recorded the will might be called a superior court, circuit court, district court, chancery court, register of wills or surrogate's court. Check The Family Tree Sourcebook (Family Tree Books) or Ancestry.com's wiki for county courthouse addresses and the name of the appropriate jurisdiction.

Probate records are usually indexed. They'll be listed by the name of the testator (the person who left the will) or intestate person (a person who died without a will), not by the heirs named in the will. Here are some tips for finding your ancestors' wills:

  • Working from the date your ancestor died, check microfilmed indexes of wills through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. You can access the library's catalog online. Run a place search for the county and state your ancestor last resided or died in, then look under "probate records." You'll get a list of the resources available on microfilm. You can order the microfilm through one of the 4,000 worldwide Family History Centers.  
  • Once you have the volume and page number from the index, order the relevant film(s). If the FHL doesn't have microfilm of the records, write to the courthouse to request the records. Sometimes the FHL has an index to probate records, but not the actual records. In that case, use the information from the index to request the will from the probate clerk.
  • If the FHL doesn't have a microfilmed index for the time period your ancestor died, you can still write directly to the probate clerk and ask if your ancestor left a will. Give your ancestor's full name, date of death and any other identifying information. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope so the clerk can tell you if the record is there and what the fee is to obtain a copy. Remember to ask if the entire probate packet exists and how much it would cost to copy it.

Another useful resource is an abstract of wills. Genealogists sometimes make these available to us by publishing a summary of the important aspects of the wills in a will book, leaving out the legal mumbo-jumbo. You might find published abstracts for your ancestor's area through the FHL (although printed books don't circulate to FamilySearch Centers) or at a genealogical library in your ancestor's town. Try searching the WorldCat online catalog of holdings at libraries around the world.

Some abstracts and indexes are popping up online; try a search engine such as Google and check the county USGenWeb site. Always then seek the original will or the recorded copy of the original in the courthouse.

Learn how to find the genealogical gems in probate records, criminal and civil cases, deeds, guardianships, naturalizations and other court records by taking the Family Tree University course Mastering Genealogy Research in Court Records
 
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