There are a huge number of probate files online. However, in many cases the files are not indexed and you must search the entire collection to see whether or not your ancestor's estate was subject to a probate action. It is very helpful to have an accurate death date to narrow the search. But you should also be aware that a probate action could be filed even years after an individual died. In the event addition property is found after an initial probate, then subsequent probate actions may be filed for after discovered property. It is also entirely possible that an ancestor owned land or property in more than one state, so individual probate actions, usually called ancillary probate actions are filed in each state where property was owned.
The FamilySearch.org Historical Record Collections contain 76 collections of probate files from around the United States. For example, the Utah, Probate Records, 1851-1961 contain 427,179 images. You might want to check FamilySearch.org frequently as new records are added weekly.
In this post, I will examine a random example of a probate file with an explanation about what you can expect to see. The file is from Utah County for Caleb W. Haws. It contains 62 pages. Caleb W. Haws died 20 November 1871. The last documents were filed in his probate action on 14 October 1904. Here is the Final Accounting and Petition for Distribution filed on about 13 April 1904 that partially explains what happened in this estate.
Apparently, Caleb died and his wife was appointed the Administrator of his estate. Then she died without closing the estate and distributing the property. Then another administrator was appointed for her estate and the estate of her husband was merged into her estates and finally after 33 years, the estate was distributed and closed. Caleb died intestate as did his wife. You can see from the file that the property in the estate did not escheat to the state as many people believe happens if you die without a will, but it did take a long time in court. Having a will would not have made the case go any faster. If the widow had finalized the estate, there would have been two probate files.
Here we go with the file. I guess this might take more than one post to go through the entire file and explain each document.
This is the first document in the file:
In this particular file, as commonly occurs, the first document you encounter is the cover sheet or file folder holding the probate. Sometimes there is just a name on the cover sheet, but this one has the name of the court and information about the person who did the digitizing of the file. Here is the next document in the file:
This is usually the first or almost the first document in a probate file. It may have different titles, but here it is a copy of the Petition for Letters of Administration in this file. Interestingly, Caleb W. Haws died in Sheffield, England but was a resident of Provo, Utah, Utah. If you were searching for a death record for Caleb, you might have been frustrated because of his death in England. This could be the only local record of his death, but I highly doubt that.
This petition already gives the researcher very valuable information about the deceased's property. A good researcher would be following up with many avenues of research, such as a death notice in Utah County, a death notice or certificate of some kind in England, documents to find out where the deceased was buried, documents about the acquisition of the land in Utah County, a marriage record for Caleb and Eliza, and so forth. The file also poses some questions right off the bat. Why did Caleb die in England? How did he die? The file also gives the names of his three children.
A quick check of the FamilySearch.org Family Tree shows an entry for Caleb Wilmam (Welman, William, Wilmon, Wilber etc.) Haws and says he died in Barnsley, Yorkshire, England not Sheffield. This probate files is listed as a source and a note says he died of Smallpox while on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hmm, there seems to be a lot that could be added to the record in the Family Tree about this person. It looks like someone should figure out what his middle name was and clean up the file. It looks like there is a lot of information on this person and a lot left to be added to the Family Tree.
Stay tuned for the continued parts of this particular post in the series on probate.
The Ins and Outs of Probate for Genealogists - Part One - In the Beginning
The Ins and Outs of Probate for Genealogists - Part Two - Where there is a will there is a way
The Ins and Outs of Probate for Genealogists - Part Three- Understanding the Language of a Will
The Ins and Outs of Probate for Genealogists - Part Four - What is Probate?
The Ins and Outs of Probate for Genealogists - Part Five - What are Probate Procedures?
The Ins and Outs of Probate for Genealogists - Part Six - Where do I find probate documents?