Court, Land, and Probate Records
Court, land, and probate records are an often overlooked, but important part of genealogical research. For example, court cases can often involve dozens of litigants and defendants, many of whom may be related. Land records, such as deeds, are among the most important documents available for tying a specific person to a specific place; especially in those cases where time, place, and circumstances have made vital records difficult to research. Probate records can supply interesting details, such as the total value of estates and lists of surviving family members. The family historians who take the time to research these types of legal documents will often be pleasantly surprised by the rewards that are in store. These types of records can help you locate ancestors’ residences, determine occupations, find financial information, establish citizenship status, or clarify relationships between people-depending on the type of records that your ancestors’ names appear in.
Types of Records
The Courts, Land, & Probate Records Collection contains a variety of records. This section explains some of the types of records you might encounter:
Probate records are created at the time of an individual’s death and are the legal records associated with the dividing up of a deceased person’s property. These records might include information about an individual’s financial situation and assets, their occupation, the names of their heirs and other family members.
A will is a legal document in which an individual declares what they want done with their possessions or estate after their death. These might include information about immediate family members or distant relatives.
A deed is typically a legal document that transfers property rights or grants land ownership to a person. These records might include information about residences and family members.
There are many types of land records-title abstracts, land purchases, grant, and more. Land records are typically one of the records kept from the very early days of settlement in an area and may be available when other records are not. These records provide information on relationships between individuals, approximate relocation dates, and the financial state of a family.
- Early American courts criminally prosecuted people for such crimes as gossiping, witchcraft, scolding a husband, and refusal to attend church services.
- The Native Americans have their own court system that is separate from the regular judicial system.
- The U.S. government has sold or given away more than 1 billion acres of land (not including Alaska).
- In colonial times, Virginia granted fifty acres to each person who brought themselves or another person to the colony. Sailors sometimes abused this by claiming fifty acres every time they sailed to Virginia.
The information for this section was taken from The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy.
What kind of information can I find in court records?
The amount of information contained within a court file can vary greatly from one case to another and from one region of the country to another. In general, you might find dates and places of births, marriages, and deaths; the names and ages of children; information about your relative’s residences; and financial and employment information.
When and where do I look for probate records?
If you can’t find the information that you’re looking for in the probate databases at Ancestry, you might want to start your search for the actual records. The place to begin searching is the county where your ancestor died and most likely owned property (unless they were only visiting the location where they passed away). If the person owned property in other jurisdictions try those areas as well, keeping mind that usually probate courts follow county lines. If a person owned property in more than one county or political jurisdiction, typically the estate will be administered in the area where the bulk of the property was located.
For more information on court records, see these articles:
Seeking Your Ancestor’s Court Records by George G. Morgan
Court Records – Finding Your Ancestors by Michael John Neill
For more information on land records, see this article:
Land Record Review by Michael John Neill
For more information on probate records, see these articles:
Probate Records, Part I by Donn Devine, CG, CGI
Probate – An Introduction by Michael John Neill