Researching Legal, Probate & Court Records Found in Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena shows how those small-print legal notices found in the back of newspapers—often ignored by most readers—can provide important clues to help you break through your genealogy brick walls.

When reading your daily newspapers, are there certain sections you skip over? For many people there is the tendency to skip over the legal notices, typically found in the back of the paper, densely squeezed together and printed in a too-small font. As readers we may think: “why should I read the legal notices?” But as genealogists it would be a mistake to skip over them—they can be a great source of family history information.

Legal notices are notifications placed in the newspaper that alert the community of judicial actions. These can be matters involving estates, divorces, taxes, and land transactions. A 1957 Wisconsin statute states that a legal notice is defined as “…every summons, order, citation, notice of sale, or other notice and every other advertisement of any description required to be published by law or in pursuance of any law or of any order of any court.”* These public legal notices can lead you to records found at the courthouse, a county assessor or recorder’s office, and even additional newspaper articles.

How to Find Legal Notices on GenealogyBank

One way to search for your ancestor in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives is to use the search engine, either the basic or the advanced search, to enter a name, perhaps a place, and even a date or date range. But don’t forget that GenealogyBank allows you to narrow your search results further by article type. Using the list found on the left hand side of your results page, choose the  Legal, Probate & Court option to search for your ancestor in legal notices.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search results page showing the Legal, Probate and Court records search option

Probate Notices in Newspapers

So what is of genealogical value in these legal notices? Plenty. Consider the notices of probate actions. One of my friends was researching her grandfather who had died and left a will. Problem was, the county courthouse serving the area where he died required payment for a search of the probate index—and then, after she paid, responded by telling her there was no court case. She knew there was a probate case because her father had been the executor of the will. So what do you do when an official entity tells you there isn’t a case? I suggested she turn to newspapers and search in the legal notices section. Sure enough, she was able to find the probate case—and with a copy of that legal notice, went back to the court clerks who were then able to provide her with the file.

probate notices, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper articles 25 January 1908

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 25 January 1908, page 9

Probate notices in newspapers can provide you names, dates, and information that you can follow up with at the courthouse. In the case of these notices from 1908 in Minnesota, the name of the deceased, the person administering the probate, the judge, and the next court date are listed.

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Genealogy Tip: Even if your ancestor left no will, there still could have been a probate case. Did they own land, a home, or owe money? Make sure to check for the existence of a probate.

Divorce Notices in the News

I’ve written about newspaper divorce notices on this blog before (see How to Find Your Ancestor’s Divorce Records in the Newspaper). Divorces notices can show up in various newspaper articles, but don’t forget that a notice requiring an appearance in court will be found in the legal notices. In these examples from 1914 Philadelphia, the defendant is told that their spouse has “filed a libel in the Court of Common Pleas…praying a divorce against you.” Those who do not show up on the date provided in this notice are forewarned “you will be liable to have a divorce granted in your absence.” Notice that in these examples, the court date and address of the defendant are listed.

divorce legal notices, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper articles 22 May 1914

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 22 May 1914, page 16

Are you new to court research? On GenealogyBank’s Legal, Probate & Court Records search box, there is a link you can click to get court record search tips.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's Legal, Probate and Court records search page showing the Search Tips link

Trustee’s Sale Notices

One of the genealogical benefits of legal notices is that our women ancestors do appear in these postings. Unfortunately, many of these notices are about the more difficult periods of a person’s life, as in this example of listings of Trustee’s Sales. As you can see, both the wife and the husband are listed in these sale notices. These 1891 examples are a good reminder that our ancestors may have been facing difficult financial times, just as many people faced in the more recent housing market collapse. If you find a notice where your ancestor’s home or property is being foreclosed on, you may want to conduct additional research to determine if there was a larger economic collapse that affected their lives. While we are most familiar with the Great Depression of the 1930s, other similar economic crises have happened in U.S. history. For example, two years after these newspaper notices appeared, there was a financial panic in 1893 that included the closing of many banks and high unemployment rates.

Auction Sales by Trustee, Kansas City Times newspaper article 29 January 1891

Kansas City Times (Kansas City, Missouri), 29 January 1891, page 9

Legal notices in newspapers help tell the story of our ancestors’ lives. While they are often ignored, these legal notices contain rich information including names, street addresses, and dates with the court that can help us find additional documentation to fill out the details on our family trees.

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*Burke, James J. Wisconsin Statutes, 1957: Embracing All General Statutes in Force at the Close of the General Session of 1957. Racine, 1957, p. 3551.

Related Legal & Court Record Articles:

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Top Genealogy Websites: Arkansas Genealogy Resources for Records

Are you researching your family roots in Arkansas? Here are some good resources for Arkansas genealogy information online—GenealogyBank and vital records put up by the state itself, as well as FamilySearch—to help with your family history research in “The Natural State.”

GenealogyBank has an extensive collection of Arkansas newspapers online from 1819 to Today.

Search Arkansas Newspaper Archives (1819 – 1999)

Search Arkansas Recent Obituaries (1999 – Current)

Discover a variety of genealogy records and news stories in these 23 Arkansas newspapers:

Search recent obituary records for your relatives in these 55 Arkansas newspapers:

Click on the image below to download a printable list of the Arkansas newspapers in GenealogyBank for your future reference. You can save to your desktop and click the titles to go directly to your newspaper of interest.

Feel free to share this list of Arkansas newspapers on your blog or website using the embed code provided below this article.

In addition to all the vital records you can find in newspapers, there are several collections of Arkansas vital records online to help with your family history research.

Some of the important collections you want to use are:

Arkansas Probate Records (1817-1979)

photo of Arkansas Probate Records, 1817-1979, from FamilySearch.org

Credit: Arkansas Probate Records, 1817-1979, FamilySearch.org

As you can see from the above example, this is a collection of digital copies of the original county probate records.

Currently this collection has 940,000 digital wills and probate papers from the following counties (click on the county name to see the probate record):

Arkansas History Commission: Arkansas Deaths (1819-1920)

The Arkansas History Commission has undertaken an important effort to index multiple sources that give the date of death for Arkansas residents from 1819-1920. They have indexed county death registers, census mortality schedules, obituary indexes, funeral home registers, Confederate pension registers and similar sources.

photo of the online death index provided by the Arkansas History Commission

Credit: Arkansas History Commission

Arkansas County Marriage Records (1837-1957)

This important online collection has more than 1 million digital copies of Arkansas marriage records online. These records were indexed by FamilySearch and the Arkansas Genealogical Society.

photo of the online index for Arkansas County Marriages, 1837-1957, provided by FamilySearch.org

Credit: Arkansas County Marriages, 1837-1957, FamilySearch.org

It’s a great day for genealogy!

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Genealogy Search Tip: Are Your Queries Returning Too Many Records?

GenealogyBank has grown from 160 million records since its inception to over 1.3 billion records today. That is a lot of articles to search through to find information about your family history. Genealogists often approach GenealogyBank with a direct search—using a surname—searching across the entire database to make sure we don’t miss any genealogy records about the family.

Sometimes, though, the simplest search query returns too many records for you to reasonably examine them all. When that happens, GenealogyBank has created over a dozen targeted search pages to help you narrow down the number of results you get back. Here’s a quick list of these helpful targeted search pages to get you started:

You can also perform targeted ethnic family searches with our African American, Hispanic and Irish American search pages.

Use these special search pages to narrow down your search to a particular type of newspaper article, as the following example shows.

Let’s say you’re searching for all the arrivals and departures of the ship Hector. If you search GenealogyBank just using the word “Hector,” you’ll get 400,000 hits. But, if you search the word “Hector” using the handy Passenger Lists link on our home page or in the left navigation pane of the Newspaper Archives category, you can narrow those search results to 14,000 passenger and ship records that specifically mention the ship Hector.

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for "Hector"

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for “Hector”

Even 14,000 records are a lot to examine. Limit the search again by a range of years when your relatives likely arrived on the ship Hector and you’ll have a manageable number of articles to sift through. Let’s say you are reasonably sure your ancestors arrived in America on the ship Hector sometime between 1820 and 1825—go ahead and use that date range in your search query.

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on "Hector" from 1820-1825

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on “Hector” from 1820-1825

Save time and zero in on the articles you need. GenealogyBank has more than a dozen targeted search pages: use them to focus your searches for the type of newspaper article you are looking for.

GenealogyBank targeted search pages

GenealogyBank targeted search pages

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.