How to Research Legal Notices in Newspapers for Genealogy

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena shows how legal notices published in old newspapers are a great genealogy resource, providing a wealth of family history information.

When doing your family history research, have you ever given much thought to those legal notices found at the back of the newspaper? Legal notices in newspapers have an important purpose: they notify the public about government and individual actions so that readers may take action if necessary. The publishing of these public notices dates back to 1789, when Congress “required all bills, orders, resolutions and congressional votes to be published in at least three publicly available newspapers.”*

According to the genealogical text, The Source, legal notices may include: “land sales for payment of taxes, administration in probate, proving of wills, heirship determination and the settlement of estates, pending divorce proceedings, sales of properties of insolvent estates, and more.”**

Have you looked for your ancestor in these public notices published in newspapers? These legal articles can lead you to additional sources stored in courthouse archives, county government offices, and beyond. Let’s look at a few examples.

Probate & Estate Notices to Creditors

One genealogically rich source of information is the Notice to Creditors for estates being probated.

At the very least these probate notices provide the deceased’s name, such as this example found in an Arizona newspaper following the death of Mary J. Griffin.

This legal notice is a good reminder to not make assumptions about female ancestors. We often assume women in earlier times didn’t leave behind wills, but they may have – and if so, legal notice of that will or testament might have been published in the local newspaper. Legal notices are a wonderful source for researching female ancestors.

a legal notice for Mary Griffin, Tucson Citizen newspaper article 26 July 1915

Tucson Citizen (Tucson, Arizona), 26 July 1915, page 5

Legal notices will often include a family member’s name who was administering the estate. This notice to creditors article example from an Idaho newspaper includes the name of the deceased, S. F. Beery, and the name of the executor who was most likely a relative, David Beery.

legal notice for S. F. Beery, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 26 June 1905

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 26 June 1905, page 5

Court Actions & Case Files

Notices of court actions in the newspaper include everything from divorces to individual lawsuits, delinquent tax issues, and foreclosures on property. Consider this example from a Minnesota newspaper that not only notifies the defendants about the court action, it mentions the land that is at the heart of the case.

legal notice for Elizabeth Field, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 11 January 1910

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 11 January 1910, page 11

Let’s face it, even our ancestors had money troubles – and that’s nowhere more obvious than in the Notice of Summons for delinquent taxes. This example from a North Carolina newspaper published during the Great Depression is an entire page of delinquent tax notices, and includes the names of married couples as well as individuals.

legal notices, Greensboro Record newspaper article 22 August 1932

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 22 August 1932, page 12

Divorces can be found in various parts of the newspaper (see Divorce Records in Newspapers: Genealogy Research Tips) including the legal notices section. In this example from an Oregon newspaper, Loretta Gates believed her husband John W. Gates to be dead, so a notice was published in the newspaper giving him the opportunity, if alive, to respond to her divorce petition. It states:

SIR: PLEASE TAKE NOTICE that a petition has been presented to this court by Loretta Gates for dissolution of your marriage on the ground that you absented yourself for five successive years, last past, without being known to her to be living, and she believes you to be dead, and that pursuant to an order of said court, entered the 22d day of December 1949, a hearing will be had upon said petition at Supreme Court…

legal notice for Loretta Gates, Oregonian newspaper article 12 February 1950

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 12 February 1950, page 39

This notice ran in the newspaper for at least three consecutive Sundays, providing ample time for a living Mr. Gates to read it.

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Government notices in the newspaper may provide you a better understanding of an event, or even an occupation, that affected your ancestor. In this legal notice from a Mississippi newspaper, the city of Gulfport in 1936 was taking bids from those who wanted to feed prisoners.

legal notice, Daily Herald newspaper article 31 December 1936

Daily Herald (Biloxi, Mississippi), 31 December 1936, page 3

It’s important to remember that newspaper articles may report on activities that impacted your ancestor’s life, but they won’t be specifically named. Search the census and city directories for your ancestor’s job and then turn to the newspaper to learn more about how they may have acquired that job.

And Then This…

I have to admit that when I think of legal notices, I think of a certain type of notice such as those I’ve highlighted above. But you never know what you might find, including this one from a San Quentin prisoner published in a California newspaper.

legal notice for Charles Cupp, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article 9 January 1927

San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 9 January 1927, page 73

This pardon notice for Charles S. Cupp surprised me – though I guess it shouldn’t have. His seeking a pardon would have been of interest to the community, and its publishing provided the community – and the victim of his crime – with notification so that they could then respond. Cupp had been convicted of shooting at a police officer.

Did You Know?

GenealogyBank has a special category for legal records, probate records and court case files. Explore legal records now >>

Genealogy Tip: Don’t limit your newspaper search to just one type of article. Make sure to examine all kinds of newspaper articles, including legal notices that mention your ancestor by name or involved activities that impacted their lives.


* “Public notice and the role Oregon newspapers play.” Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association. Accessed 3 May 2015.
** “Newspapers” by Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA, and James L. Hansen, FASG in Szucs, Loretto D, and Sandra H. Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006.

Related Legal Notices Articles:

How to Search Probate Records in GenealogyBank’s Newspaper Archives

State laws required that a legal notice of a probate action be posted in local newspapers. This was the state’s method to get the word out to all interested parties that an estate was going to be disbursed to the heirs and creditors.

These legal requirements varied across the country, but we can reasonably expect that the newspapers where our ancestors lived carried these probate notices.

Probate records alert you to the names of the deceased, the executor of the will and—importantly—the court where the estate was probated. With this information, you can then contact that court to obtain a copy of the complete probate file for further genealogy research. Remember that an estate might not be probated for months or even a year after a person died, so you will want to search for probate and estate records using a wide span of years.

Search for newspaper probate notices by using GenealogyBank’s new “Probate Court Records, Case Files & Legal News” search tool.

To get to this probate records search tool, begin by clicking on the “Search Newspaper Archives” link on GenealogyBank’s homepage.

GenealogyBank homepage with "Search Newspaper Archives" link

GenealogyBank homepage with “Search Newspaper Archives” link

Then look at the index on the left-hand side of the next page and click on the “Legal, Probate & Court” link.

GenealogyBank page with "Legal, Probate & Court" link

GenealogyBank page with “Legal, Probate & Court” link

This action brings you to the “Probate Court Records, Case Files & Legal News” search box.

GenealogyBank's "Probate Court Records, Case Files & Legal News" search form

GenealogyBank’s “Probate Court Records, Case Files & Legal News” search form

Simply search the newspapers for the state in question for your ancestor’s probate records. I would suggest limiting the initial probate notice search to only a surname and a year. Depending on the number of search result hits that are returned, you could add additional information to narrow down your search for your deceased relative’s probate and estate records.

GenealogyBank search results page showing sample "Legal/Probate/Court" records

GenealogyBank search results page showing sample “Legal/Probate/Court” records

Use this special “Probate Court Records, Case Files & Legal News” search tool to save time and target your searches.