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.

Enter Last Name










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.

________

*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:

ad for gift subscriptions to GenealogyBank

Taxes: Not Fun to Pay, but Great Genealogy Records!

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena shows how your ancestors’ tax records and notices published in old newspapers can fill in some gaps in your family history.

Tax Day in the United States is quickly approaching. Are you ready? Taxes are a part of our everyday modern lives from sales tax and income tax to property tax. As we approach that dreaded date in April when our annual income tax returns are due, it’s a good reminder that we can look at our ancestor’s tax records to help with our genealogy research.

1941 Pennsylvania tax notice

Document: 1941 Pennsylvania tax notice. Credit: from the author’s collection.

Have you thought about the newspaper as a place to research your ancestor’s tax records? Our ancestors were similarly saddled with all types of taxes as we are today, and some taxpayers found themselves mentioned in the newspapers in the form of annual delinquent property tax lists.

For example, in this 1910 list of delinquent tax payers in Sandoval County, New Mexico, the names of the property owners, the amount due, and the property descriptions are all provided.

List of Delinquent Taxes, Sandoval County, Albuquerque Journal newspaper article article 26 August 1910

Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, New Mexico), 26 August 1910, page 3

For those who could not or would not pay their outstanding property tax balances, a sale of their property would occur. That information would also be published in the newspaper and might include the property owner’s name and property description, as shown in this example from California.

Notice of Sale of Property for Delinquent Taxes, Evening News newspaper article 11 January 1905

Evening News (San Jose, California), 11 January 1905, page 6

Here is an old article from an Idaho newspaper about taxpayer complaints to the county board. It provides good information about a few taxpayers, why their taxes weren’t paid or weren’t credited by the tax collector, and the result of their complaints. In one case a man who was ill with smallpox asked to have any penalties for non-payment dropped because he was quarantined and not allowed by county officials to visit anyone. While it seems like that would be a good enough excuse, it appears his request fell on deaf ears. Several women were exempted from paying taxes because they were widows. Details including names and circumstances of seven taxpayers can be found at the end of the old newspaper article.

Complaints to County Board, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 17 November 1903

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 17 November 1903, page 6

Other types of newspaper articles provide information about new taxes being enacted. These historical news articles can give you a sense of what life was like for your ancestor. While this type of social history background is not specific to an individual’s name, it does provide an understanding of their lives.

All types of tax records and notices are available on our ancestors. One of my favorites, the dog tax that was assessed against owners, was adopted by communities to help individuals who suffered the loss of livestock because of roving dogs. When researching taxes your ancestor may have paid, if you haven’t done so already, I recommend that you first check the Family History Library Catalog and conduct a Place Name search on where your ancestor lived. While conducting a place search you can look over records in the subject category “Taxation” for documents that can provide some information about your ancestor’s life.

Between these tax records, and the information published in old newspapers, you might be able to fill in a few missing pieces in your family history!