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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Don't Limit Your Research
by Rhonda R. McClure

September 19, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Have you truly exhausted all the records that you should in a given research problem? So often we hear that adage but how often do we really do it? I know most genealogists tend to stop researching in a particular record group or type once they find one document that lists the individuals for whom they were searching. I think the census is the only record type in which we do not stop, instead we look for them in each year they should appear.

There are other records, though, in which we often do not spend as much time as we should. For instance, probate records. We often stop our research once we have found a will. While the will is certainly a useful document, it often does not tell the entire story. Have you looked to see if the courthouse has other records or perhaps the Family History Library has microfilmed probate records other than the will books?

Be sure you have found all of the records.

Probate Records vs. Wills

I often find genealogists using the word probate to mean will and the word will to mean probate, as though the two words were synonymous. While a will is certainly part of a probate, the probate often includes many other records, some of which might hold clues to your ancestral question. Also, if your ancestor died intestate, that is with no will, then the probate records are your only hope. While he may have died without saying what was to happen to his property, the laws of the state did cover such an eventuality and the estate would be administered and the heirs given what was legally theirs.

A probate file, or estate file, is the compilation of records generated in the dispersing of an individual's real and personal estate after his or her death. This is a paper trail that genealogists should follow but often do not.

The probate file can include all or some of the following types of records:

  • Will
  • Receipts
  • Bonds
  • Letters of administration
  • Letters to the court
  • Inventory of the estate
  • Newspaper announcements

The clues for your family history may be hiding in any one of these.

Understanding Intestate

When someone dies without having written a will, they are said to have died intestate. Most people think that there is nothing to be found when there is no will. However, in an intestate case, it is often possible to discover all of the children and other heirs. The laws of the state in which the person lived determine who is considered an heir. The downside to the intestate files is that you are not always privy to the relationship of the heirs, they are just listed as "heirs at law."

What you do find, though, is a detailed inventory of the estate, and often a listing of those who purchased the belongings of the deceased. You may also find many receipts as the individuals with notes due them or those who owed the deceased are being paid or are paying the estate. These receipts may reveal why an individuals is being paid.

You will want to pay close attention to the names on the receipts and in any of the correspondence found in the probate or estate file. These names may end up being in-laws or having some other relationship with your ancestor. It could be that these individuals traveled with your ancestor as he migrated from one area to another.

Just because your ancestor died intestate does not mean that you will come away from the probate file empty handed. While we all love to find a will that lists the names of all the children, including the husband's names for the daughters, the information hiding in the other papers generated during the probating of an ancestors estate may turn out to be what you were really looking for.

Following My Own Advice

Recently I almost didn't follow my own advice. I was working in the probate records in the hopes of finding definitive proof that Mary Rutledge who married Henry Spencer Johnson was indeed the daughter of Paschal and Mary Rutledge. Of course like everyone else I headed straight for the wills. My first search was for a will of Paschal, whom I estimated had died before 1840, as Mary showed up as the head of the household in the 1840 census. I didn't find him, but in looking into the index, I found what I suspected was the entry for his wife Mary.

As I cranked the microfilm to the page where Mary's will was listed, my heart sank. It was only about a half a page long. This did not bode well in finding all the children listed. As I skimmed the will, sure enough I discovered that she had only mentioned two daughters, the two that spent her latter years living with her. She indicated that she had other children, but that these two were the two that needed to be looked after, and that was why she had written her will the way she had.

I made a copy of the will and moved on to other records with disappointment. The next morning as I returned to the library and was flipping through my notebook to see what I was going to begin the day with, my eyes spied a microfilm number for the alphabetically arrange estate files that would include the Rutledge surname. At first I almost ignored it again, but instead I decided to see what it had, still hoping to find something on Paschal.

As I was cranking through the estate files, looking for Pascal, I was surprised to find a file folder on Mary. (I'm not sure why I was surprised. I shouldn't have been.) After all, she had a will and that meant there should have been some additional paperwork on her estate. I began to look through the many papers and was stunned to discover a letter to the court detailing all of her children and the grandchildren of her already deceased children. It even listed where each of them was living, giving the city and the state. In the case of Mary Rutledge Johnson, who had predeceased her, the names of her children were listed including the one for whom I was following the lineage. I felt like shouting with delight.

In Conclusion

Had I simply stopped at the will, I would still be in search of my definitive proof. By looking at all the records that were available at the repository where I was researching, though, I made a windfall discovery. Sometimes those discoveries are hard won and may require writing to a courthouse or doing some additional leg work, but in the end the effort expanded to find the records may be worth it.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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