Genealogy Tip: Finding & Using Probate Records

Introduction: In this article, Katie Rebecca Garner gives tips for finding and using an important resource for genealogy: probate records. Katie specializes in U.S. research for family history, enjoys writing and researching, and is developing curricula for teaching children genealogy.

When a person dies, their possessions and property go to their relatives. The probate process is the legal proceedings through which this is accomplished, and it leaves behind a paper trail. By following the probate paper trail left by your ancestors, you can learn a lot about them. This is especially useful researching eras prior to civil registration.

There are testate and intestate probates. Testate means the deceased left a will behind and intestate means they did not leave a will. In a will, the ancestor appoints someone as an executor and designates which relatives will inherit what property. For an intestate probate, the court will appoint an administrator who will distribute the property among heirs as the court sees fit.

The probate process begins with initiation, which consists of a petition or bond being signed by the executor or administrator. The next step is inventory and appraisal of assets. Assets then may be sold to pay debts. Next is accounting for payments and receipts, then distribution of the estate among the heirs. The last step is final accounting. This process can take years to complete.

If the deceased left dependents behind, the probate process would involve establishing care for said dependents. In the case of minor children, guardians would be appointed, which leaves guardianship records in the probate paper trail.

Probate records include wills, bonds, petitions, accounts, inventories, administrations, orders, decrees, and distributions. These records often contain information about: the deceased’s residence; date of death; names of spouse, children, parents, siblings, in-laws, neighbors, and associates; previous residence; occupation; land ownership; former spouse(s); religion; and military service.

Because probate is a state government function, the laws vary between states. Some states model their probate law after English Common law and some after Spanish Common Property law. The probate process was conducted at the county courthouse where the deceased owned property, which was not necessarily where he or she died. Records can be found at the local courthouses.

Which court kept the record depended on the place and time. Courts that kept probate records include Circuit Court, Court of Common Pleas, Court of Ordinary, District Court, Orphans’ Court, Probate Court, Surrogate’s Court, and Superior Court.

Sometimes probate files are moved from the courthouse to the state archive or a local historical society. From there they may have been digitized and made available online through the state archive website, FamilySearch, or a subscription website.

A good starting place to find probate records is the FamilySearch wiki. In the wiki, you can navigate to pages about probate records for specific U.S. states and counties. You can also search for probate records for specific localities in the FamilySearch card catalog.

Many probate records are not indexed, so it may be necessary to browse through images. Many probate books have indexes within the book. To find your ancestor’s probate record, first find them on the index. This will give the book and page numbers, which can be used to find the probate record.

Case Study: Joseph Alexander

The ancestral Joseph Alexander died between 1833 and 1834 in Washington County, Pennsylvania. The problem was the probate indexes for Washington County listed many Alexanders. After patient searching, his will was found in book five, pages 153-155. It provided a great deal of information about him and his extended family.

The will of Joseph Alexander mentions his wife but doesn’t give her name.* It also mentions children: Joseph, James, and Fanny. Fanny Alexander was unmarried at the time the will was written. Grandchildren mentioned were: Eddie/Edie Ramsey, Nancy Ramsey, and Jean/Jeane Alexander; it was stated that Eddie and Nancy were siblings.

Since inheritances were going to grandchildren, it can be assumed that Joseph Sr.’s children who bore those grandchildren had died prior to him writing his will. Eddie and Nancy would be children of one of his daughters, and Jeane would be a daughter of one of his sons. Joseph Alexander Jr. was named as one of the executors. This suggests he was the oldest living son and a legal adult.

Joseph Alexander wrote his will on 12 August 1833, and it was proved on 8 September 1834. He would have died between those dates. Family relationships reflected in the will are those that were living in August 1833. Those same relatives were likely still living in September 1834, since no notes were left indicating they predeceased Joseph Alexander Sr.

Associates and neighbors were also mentioned in the will. A lot left to his wife was one next to that of Moses Bell. Rents came from places where Samuel Barr and Joseph McElwaith/McElwrath lived. Eddie Ramsey was appointed to pay money to Joseph Mayes. Land had previously been sold to McNitt and Alexander. The executors were Joseph Alexander Jr. and Joseph Henderson, Esq. Further research of Joseph Alexander should involve searching for those names in other records.

Along with courthouses, probate records can be found in a collection of old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, because of legal requirements that certain information be published in the newspaper. Part of the probate process for Joseph Alexander’s will included Executors’ Notices being published in the local newspaper, and this one was found in GenealogyBank.

An article about Joseph Alexander, Examiner newspaper 8 November 1834
Examiner (Washington, Pennsylvania), 8 November 1834, page 3

This notice was posted multiple times throughout the month of November in Washington County, Pennsylvania. This gives additional valuable information about Joseph Alexander Sr.: he resided in West Alexander. This information will be helpful in differentiating the ancestral Joseph Alexander from others of the same name in Washington County.

Based on this information about Joseph Alexander and his family, other places to research them include census records from 1830 and earlier, probate records for other Alexanders that might be related, tax records, and land records. Tax records would show when the Joseph Alexanders became adults, which would hint at their possible birthyears. The will mentioned a land sale, and that should be reflected in land records.

Just like with Joseph Alexander, finding probate records of your ancestors can give you useful information about them and clues for further research. You may even find supporting newspaper clippings at GenealogyBank.

* Washington County, Pennsylvania Surrogate’s Court House Recorder of Deeds, Will Book Volume 5, pp. 153-155, will of Joseph Alexander, 8 September 1834; digital image, FamilySearch, ( accessed 5 September 2022), Film #005537970, images #87-88.

Explore over 330 years of newspapers and historical records in GenealogyBank. Discover your family story! Start a 7-Day Free Trial.

Note on the header image: judge’s gavel and books


  • Nancy A. Peters, “Beyond the Will: What Probate Records Reveal about Ancestors,” NGS Magazine 48 #2 (April-June 2022): 16- FHL 973 D25ngs v. 48 no. 2
  • Judy G. Russell, “No Longer ‘All Greek to Me’: Dealing with Legal Lingo in Probate Records,” NGS Magazine 48 #2 (April-June 2022): 29- FHL 973 D25ngs v. 48 no. 2

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *