Probate records can be any kind of document used in an individuals’ estate settlement in court. The amount of documents and their contents can differ depending on the time period. If here is a large amount of property to settle, then multiple jurisdictions may carry records. These records are rarely found together in one place.
Following are possible documents found in probate court records:

• will and associated records
• list of heirs
• letters testamentary
• widow’s one-year support
• appointment(s) of administrator(s) or executor(s)
• inventory
• Guardianship
• petitions
• Accounts
• Releases
• letters of administration
• bonds
• claims
• dower apportionments
• commissioners’ reports
• receipts
• judgments
• orders
• division of property
• estate sale(s)

Because probate records usually involve close family members and sometimes verification of those relationships, they are valuable resourced for genealogical research. A robust collection of information can be found, such as documentation of lineage, and sometimes these records can help you find other documents. You can also receive fast access to the records if they are published.

The opposite can also be true; if you are expecting to find important family details, but the testator did not document many details about relatives, probate records can be a disappointment rather than a treasure. Sometimes the estate is just not very large; sometimes relatives contest a will, making the facts hard to determine; and sometimes the property is sold off to pay outstanding debt. On some occasions, the records could be missing.

Regardless of these potential set-backs, probate records are still the most popular among genealogical researchers. Because so much personal information can be found, it is the most obvious place to begin looking. Rich biographical information can be found for the deceased family member as well as all of the relatives who are heirs. This can help you identify maiden names and married names of women that can link you to maternal family lineage, previous addresses, and ethnic origin.

When you begin requesting probate records from the court, be sure that you don’t narrow your results by asking to see a “will.” Most clerks will carry out this request quite literally and will give you only the will, even if there are various other documents in the file. You could be missing out on important information if you do not request the entire file

Ages of Legal Action

Legal ActionLegal AgeExceptions/Comments
InheritFrom birthAn unborn child can also inherit
Be enumerated in censusFrom birthUsually heads of household only until 1850
Witness documents14 (male);
12 (female)
The age of discretion under the common law was 14 (males) and 12 (females). Some exceptions are listed below
Attend school5Some schools accepted 3-year-olds
Testify in court14 (male);
12 (female)
Choose guardian14 (male);
12 (female)
Must be 21 in New York. No choice until age of discretion; then, if guardian ppointed by court is unacceptable, can select another subject to court approval
Serve as apprentice14 (male);
12 (female)
Standard term was to 21 (male), 18 (female), or time of marriage. If apprenticed before age of discretion, bound only to ages 14/12. Must have written deed which allowed for apprentice’s content, except for orphans on the public charge
Show land to processioners14 (male);
12 (female)
Males only; southern states. (Procession means to walk around the boundary lines of local property owners.)
Be punished for crime14 (male);
12 (female)
Some general exceptions before 1860. Complicated changes in the 20th century
Sign contracts14 (male);
12 (female)
May be required to confirm contract after arriving at majority
Act as executor14 (male);
12 (female)
Usually administrator with will annexed so the court had some controls. Age 17 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Missouri; age 18 in Mississippi. Bondsman who could act as co-executor required in Vermont
Bequeath personal property by will14 (male);
12 (female)
Age 18 in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Virginia; age 18 (male) and 16 (female) in New York; age 21 in
Vermont. Property may be held in custody of court pending review
Marry14 (male);
12 (female)
Parental consent required in most states until age 21(male) and 18 (female). Married child not subject to control of parents, could remarry on death of spouse without consent if underage. Age 18 (male) and 14 (female) in Mississippi, Ohio, Indiana; age 18 (male) and 15 (female) in Minnesota; age 17 (male) and 14 (female) in Illinois; age 16 (male) and 14 (female) in Iowa. Marriage is valid without parental consent, but officiator could be fined. Annulment or Divorce only way to void the marriage
Be taxed16Males only were counted; females appear as “heirs of . . . ”
Muster into militia16Males only
Procession land16Procession means to walk around the boundary lines of local property owners
Take possession of land holdings16“In possession of” on tax rolls signifies that the person named is at least 16
Practice trade18Some cities licensed tradesmen to practice their Profession/occupation at age 18
Release of guardian21 (male);
18 (female)
Own land21Some states allowed females these rights at age 18
Devise land by will21
Be taxed21Full poll responsibility unless exempt
Plead or sue in court21
Be naturalized21After meeting residence requirements
Fill public office21Age 25 or older required for some offices
Serve on jury21Grand jury, petit jury, coroner’s jury
Vote21Linked to 21 as age of land ownership, a prerequisiteto voting in colonies

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