Probate records can provide important familial identifications. They can identify children and spouses, prove family relationships and provide approximate death dates. Probate records come in many forms including wills, codicils, inventories, accounts, receipts, settlements among heirs and guardianships of minor children.
A person who dies testate left a will; a person who died intestate did not. Occasionally expediency determined that a person had to make a will in a hurry, and did not have time to write it down, stating his wishes to another party who would later relay his sentiments to the probate court; this is referred to as a nuncupative will. If the deceased did not name an executor (male) or executrix (female) to oversee the administration of his estate, the courts would have to appoint an administrator or administratrix who would be required to post a bond.
What can wills tell us genealogically? They often named the children in order of birth. Children might be named in actual order of birth, or listed first by sons in their order of birth followed by the daughters in their order of birth. When birth records cannot be found it is often possible to construct approximate years of birth and family positioning based on the order of children in their parent’s will.
What happens when a child is not mentioned in his father’s will or settlement? The most likely reason is that the child is deceased with no living issue. If a deceased child has left children, these children are almost always named and identified, and receive the portion that was due their deceased parent. Occasionally, a child is not mentioned because they have already received their portion.
Once a father was deceased, guardians, who were often relatives of the deceased or his wife, were appointed for his minor children to protect their interest in their father’s estate. Generally speaking, children over the age of fourteen could choose their own guardian while those under fourteen had one appointed by the court.
In addition to proving parentage and family relationships, probate records can give an approximate time frame for a death when a death date cannot be found. A person died between the dates of his will and the next mention of his estate in the probate records which often is the date the will was presented for probate or the date administration was granted to the executor.
In New England, early probate records will be found in the county courthouses with one exception—Connecticut. In Connecticut these records have been deposited at the State Library in Hartford.
Of interest to Mayflower researchers is Roser’s Mayflower Deeds & Probates which are abstracts of records collected by George E. Bowman. Genealogy websites Ancestry, American Ancestors, and FamilySearch have probate and will databases for New England.
With our “Research: Mayflower Ancestors” course, you will learn more about your Mayflower ancestors and the information provided in those probate records.