Advantages, Limitations and How to Locate Printed Probate Records

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–How to Locate Printed Probate Records
Electronic media has made the process of finding printed probate records and indexes much easier than in previous times. Networked computer systems carry major library catalogs and can be access through local libraries. Records are also available on CD-ROM, microfiche, or through telephone communication systems.

Learn the Correct Locality – The modification of county boundaries over time can confuse the process of looking for probate records. It can be hard to determine which county to consult, especially if a statewide index doesn’t exist. This is why it is important to learn the correct locality.

Correspondence – Once you have identified the formation of the correct county, many record sources can be found. Local county genealogical or historical societies are listed in reference books, and they can assist you in finding sources for probate records and other related files. Libraries can also have relevant reference books.

The Family History Library Catalog – Probate materials can be found quickly when you use the Family History Library Catalog™, or FHLC. This publication can be accessed on the web, which is available online. The catalog can also be found in Salt Lake City, Utah at the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS church has more than 2,500 family history centers that are branch facilities as well, and the catalog can be researched at any of them.

The Online catalog is easy to use, however:

  1. Select the state of interest
  2. Select the county of interest
  3. Select the category “Probate Records.”

If you are looking on the microfiche edition, you can use the Author/Title section to find a book by the title or author. On this version, records are listed by the highest jurisdiction, then alphabetized, then county categories, then town categories. To look at what records exist in a specific area, use the Locality section. This is organized by state and then county.

The term “probate records” encompasses a wide variety of records, including wills and records of orphan’s court, administrations, estate settlements, executor’s bonds, and other records that relate to probate proceedings.

Other Library Catalogs – A collection of probate records for multiple areas can be found at every genealogical library. Each library has its own terminology and process for research. Catalogs can be found on the internet, in printed book format, or on microfilm. The Dictionary Catalog of the Local History and Genealogy Division (of the New York Public Library) and the Sutro Library State and Local History Catalog are good examples. The Sutro Library is in San Francisco and is part of the California State Library. It has a collection of American local history and genealogy that is updated quarterly. Earlier compilations are on microfiche. Most of these materials can be borrowed on inter-library loan.

Bibliographies and Research Guides – Another resource for researching the location of probate records are bibliographies and research guides. The purpose of both of these is to list sources that can be used for research in a particular locality. These include:

  • P. William Filby’s American and British Genealogy and Heraldry: A Selected List of Books (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1983; supplement, 1987)
    This is a list of published books that are useful for family researchers. The information is listed by state and includes data on books with wills and other probate documents.
  • Kory L. Meyerink’s CD-ROM publication Genealogical Publications: A List of 50,000 Sources from the Library of Congress (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997)
    This contains a compilation of over seven hundred sources with certain keywords in their subject headings, such as: will, probate, and inventories. It also lists over one hundred sources that contain these words in the titles and descriptions. These lists are described in more detail in the 5th chapter of this publication.

Periodicals – A variety of periodicals can contain information that is helpful to genealogical research. Those published by historical societies can contain abstracts or indexes to probate records. Relevant articles can also be found in state and regional publications. Sometimes you can find an announcement about new publications in a local journal or newsletter.

There is also a Periodical Source Index (PERSI) that is easy to use for finding articles on wills or other probate documents. This index is published by the Allen County Public Library Foundation in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It is arranged by topic and contains thousands of articles from genealogical periodicals and journals. It is available in book and microfiche formats and on CD-ROM from Ancestry (Salt Lake City, 1997). This resource should be checked simply because of its volume; over two thousand periodicals are listed. All names and places that are in article titles (no the body) are indexed.

The three sections of the index are: locality, research methodologies, and family. If you look up your location of interest under the locality section, you will then be able to search for the record “type” of will or probate.

It is important to note that the alphabetical listing of states is organized by two-letter postal code, not the full spelling. This changes the order of some listings, such as Iowa

[IA] and Idaho [ID]. County record listings appear under each state, identified by their present-day county name. Wills have separate listing than probate records, so you will need to review both listings.

Each listing has a descriptive entry in the title column instead of the exact title. To find the citation of an article, look at the columns to the right of this entry; the journal title (abbreviated), volume number, issue, month, and year are all listed. However, page numbers are not included.


There are advantages and disadvantages to using printed resources for your research. If you are only using printed material, you can run into problems. However, if you are also diligent about reviewing the original documents, the printed materials can be very helpful. First, they can help you find and retrieve the records you are looking for quickly. Also, the data that is recorded is usually concise and easy to read through. Finally, these materials are usually easy to access, as they are widely available.

Indexes – The printed works that you will get the most information from are every-name indexes and verbatim transcripts. The abstracts are thorough and include the volume and page numbers of each entry. You can usually find the citation of the original record as well, indicating where it is stored.

The most recent publications, printed during the last two decades, have every-name indexes. This type of listing includes more than just the testator name; it also includes all individuals named in the record. This makes the resource extremely valuable to the family history researcher.

Some of the probate records that are published are just indexes. They each may have a unique format, but they are almost always useful for research and worth the time to consult. A chapter bibliography will normally list statewide compilations.

Ease and Speed of Use – One of the primary advantages to printed materials is the ability to scan the information quickly. This is much easier than deciphering handwritten originals. Sometimes the combination of difficult handwriting with faded or bleeding ink, wrinkled or ripped pages, and blurry microfilming can make it impossible to understand the contents.

Conciseness – Abstracts that have been written and proofread with care are also very concise and easy to read through. Sometimes the original records are very long, and the information that you need is hidden within a large amount of irrelevant text. A good abstract pulls out the important facts so that you can find them easily.

Explanation – The front of the printed work might contain a summary from the editor that outlines the original record locations, the sources, a key to abbreviations or terms, references to historical background, and explanations of special formatting. The editor might also recommend other resources. If there are foreign words or legal terms used in the publication, these might also be explained. Some even contain relevant maps. These introductions are definitely worth the time to review to gain a better understanding of the entries.

The best and most useful compilations are edited by someone who knows the area well and is knowledgeable about its records, historical background, family stories, and terms and abbreviations used at the time. A great editor might also be able to distinguish which clerk had written a record by the handwriting.

In addition to the editor’s notes, you can also consult a guide that helps with abbreviations you might find: The Terminology & Meanings of Genealogical Abbreviations – Abbreviations for those most commonly used in genealogical records.

Availability – Printed resources are easy to access and widely available. Some jurisdictions publish records annually. Accessing original documents can mean a trip to the county courthouses or state archives, but you can find published records at your library, or request a printed work on inter-library loan. Genealogical societies sometimes have special lending libraries that are made available to members.

Substitutes for Missing Records – Original documents will always have the most accurate information. However, sometimes these are in poor condition or are difficult to access. Some counties keep these records well-preserved and tightly-bound so that they are easy to read. Other offices let the records fade and crumble or become torn, or even lost or stolen. Some officials have laminated their records in hopes of preserving them longer. For the earliest records, transcripts of the original documents are the only resources available. This is particularly the case for records dating from the 1800s to the 1930s. However, these transcripts are extremely valuable when the originals are lost or ruined.


The quality and usefulness of printed materials can vary, however. While there are great volumes available, there are equally useless ones available as well. As a researcher, you should carefully examine printed resources to determine how reliable they are.

Limited Coverage or Information – While some printed materials contain detailed information, others are only used as finding aids. They are primarily for locating the place where the original document is held. Some have additional data, but not enough to use the printed volume as your only source. For example, the listing could include obvious relatives but exclude names that were unclear on the relationship to the deceased.

The time period covered in a publication is usually short. However, at times the final distribution of an estate occurs years after the death of the testator. This usually happens because of specific parameters outlined in the will, such as a child reaching adulthood or the occurrence of a marriage or death of the widow. When this happens, the date of probate is much later than the actual death. If you are only looking at records from the time close to the death, you might miss such a record that is filed on a later date.

Sometimes a will is recorded more than one time in the original archives. This could happen because of the addition of a codicil, a filed caveat, a contested will, or the death or irresponsible acts of an executor. If a jurisdiction changes between the times of the two filings, one record may be indexed without the knowledge that the other exists.

If you find a printed probate record, you still might not find the complete published record. Estate settlements that took several years to complete can cause printed collections to be incomplete for individual cases. You also may need to know the county in which your ancestor lived before you know which volume to search. This can mean searching other records first, such as census records, land and property records, and county histories, to find this information.

Errors in Transcription, Typing, or Interpretation – Any time original documents are transcribed into print, errors can occur. Data could be omitted, handwriting could be misinterpreted, or typographical mistakes could occur. If the transcriber was unfamiliar with the area’s proper names, terms of the time period or location, had difficulty reading the handwriting, there can be issues with the printed entry. If you are unable to find probate in the printed materials, but you believe one exists, consult the original records to be sure.

There are other issues to be aware of if you are using published records as your sole resource. Details could be missing, the citation references such as pagination could be incorrect, or handwriting could have been misread. It is best to search for all possible spellings of a name before determining that it is not listed. Also, if possible, check other names from the area and time period that sounded similar or were spelled in a similar way.

Sometimes there are loose papers that relate to a probate case but are not published. These are usually not indexed or referenced in the entry for the probate record. However, these papers can have important information in the content.

Inaccuracies in Dates – You should review all printed dates carefully. Errors can occur during transcription. For earlier records, primarily before 1752, there could be mistakes in the conversion of dates from the Gregorian to the Julian calendar. You can recognize the time of this transition by the notation of a double year, such as 1728/29.

Mistakes in numbers are more plentiful than mistakes in text, because they are harder to spot. By performing a careful check of dates and references to books and pages, you can verify the accuracy of dates. You can do this by looking over the sequence of entries before and after the particular record. If the number falls out of sequence, it should be verified with the original document.

Problems with Indexes – It is best not to make assumptions about the information in an index, such as assuming that it is an
every-name listing. If the editor has not included a detailed explanation of which names were included, you cannot rely on the entry as comprehensive. Some classes of names could have been left out on purpose to reduce the length of the listing. Some names, such as witnesses, executor/administrator, and heirs to the will and other persons mentioned incidentally, are habitually omitted.

When all of the names are included, another problem can arise. Because the list is long, the editor might just list everyone alphabetically, not identifying testator or decedent. This is another reason why your review and close scrutiny of the publication’s quality is essential.

The earlier the date of the record, the less detail you should expect to be included. You will usually not find and every-name index in earlier publications. These will usually just include the names of obvious relatives named in the will.

Sometimes the given names in an index can be incorrectly transcribed. Letters can be transposed or extra letters could be added by mistake. You can check for accuracy by comparing different publications.

Omissions Within the Abstracts – Abstracts can sometimes leave our important details to accommodate the size of the publication. It is always good to review the original document if possible for additional information. Some details that can be omitted include names and relationships of individuals mentioned in the record, legal descriptions of real estate, itemized personal property, details of the property divisions, connections with other individuals, references to earlier records or transactions, and other details. While some editors are up front about what information has been included, others make entries look complete when they are not. For example, include only limited years or certain surnames.

Limitations of Scope – Some indexes do not include entries for all counties in the state. Sometimes duplications exist iIn cases where more than one published record exists for a jurisdiction. Review and compare transcripts with the original source.

It is important to note that printed literature usually contains more testate than intestate cases. Because there are actually more intestate cases in existence, you can’t assume that they are all published. The officials in each jurisdiction can provide guidance for researching intestate cases.

Misleading Titles – Be careful of misleading titles. For example, during the early colonial period, most records were kept by parishes, as government structure was not well established yet. Therefore, some parish registers reference wills. Knowledge of customs of the area for that time period can help you locate such hidden references.

Just because a publication is listed as statewide, it does not guarantee that all counties in that state are included. If county records are in a separate location, they might be omitted.

References or citations from estate records can be found in with varying titles. Examples include Marjorie Hood Fischer’s Tennessee Tidbits, 1778–1914, vol. 1 (Easley, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1986), and Ruth Blake Burns, Tennessee Tidbits, 1778–1914, vol. 2 (Vista, Calif.: Ram Press, 1988). In these works, you will find abstracts of court records, including wills, probates, administrations, dower allotments, petitions, guardianships, and actions against estates. Probate and estate records can be found under the generic title of “court records.”

Evaluation Checklist – Because of the inconsistencies and possible errors already mentioned, it helps to have a list of things to examine when evaluating a record for completeness and accuracy. First, compare a sample of the original with the transcription for facts thoroughness of data. Next, determine if the person who edited or compiled the listing was familiar with the area and the local process. Check to see if the index thorough or partial, and if it is manual or computer-generated. Read the introduction for details about how the information was gathered assembled and organized. These steps will all help you evaluate the source.

Conclusion – Printed probate records are best used as finding aids that will lead to a more complete review of original documents. We hope that the information we have provided a guide to using these indexes, making you aware of advantages, disadvantages, and ways to evaluate their quality and usefulness.