In the United States and elsewhere as recently as the early 20th century, the death of a father meant his offspring were orphans, even if their mother survived him. Laws assumed a woman couldn’t adequately provide for or manage the welfare of the children. As a result, courts became involved with arrangements for them.
One or more guardians would be assigned responsibility for their care and welfare, even if they continued to live with their mother. This process created guardianship records that can provide valuable information about your orphaned or adopted ancestors.
The guardian(s) might have been a male relative or a couple related to either parent. Married aunts and uncles of the children may have taken one or more minor children into their home. This could result in splitting up siblings among relatives.
If the father was wealthy, he might have created a legal trust to care for a minor child’s welfare until the age of majority. Alternatively, in the cases of poor families in which neither parent survived, and/or when an appropriate guardian couldn’t be found, the court may have placed the children in an orphanage or other facility.
You’ll often find guardianship records as a part of the probate records of a parent’s estate. If there’s no will or probate file, you might find references to the deceased and the names of minor children in an index to probate court minutes. Alternatively, family court records could include details of an orphan’s placement with individuals or in an institution.
Be sure to follow the children’s places of residence from the time of the death of a parent. Other changes may have taken place after the initial guardianship appointment, such as death of a guardian, marriage or death of a minor child, or adoption by another person.
Here are some key details to look for in guardianship records:
1. The legal jurisdiction that created a record such as this one indicates the family’s state and county of residence. Look for the family living there in census and other records.
2. The names of all minor children living at the parent’s time of death are listed. Review the contents of the decedent’s probate file for other references to the children. Don’t overlook probate court minutes for references to the decedent and to minor children.
3. This is the name used on legal documents relating to the parent who has died. Use this name when searching for death records, wills and probate records.
4. You’ll learn the name of the probate judge administering the case.
5. The record gives the name of the appointed guardian(s). Subsequently, the guardian would normally file annual reports with the court until the youngest child reached the age of majority or some other change was made in the arrangement. The marriage of a female child removes the responsibility of guardianship, but a filing with the court should state the change in her marital status. Or a guardian may have administered on behalf of the children while they lived with their widowed mother or another relative. Search censuses and other records to determine where the children resided and follow them from there.
6. The judge’s signature and the date of the granting of guardianship are listed here.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2012 of Family Tree Magazine.