Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Questions About Wills and Probate

Here are a couple of questions that came up when the Columbia County Genealogical Society took a field trip to the Columbia County, Georgia Probate Court last Thursday.

"What is in a probate file and where do you find it?"

It depends on the state/county [but we are talking Georgia here]. Some probate courts keep all of the papers generated for each probate case together in a "box," "drawer" or "case file." Others keep all of the components separate as does the Columbia County Probate Court. You have the Will Books which contain the wills and the court document when the will was proved, you have the Inventories and Appraisements, Accounts of Sales, Letters of Administration and Administrator Bonds, Guardianship Bonds and [court] Minutes. These are all in separate books. You have to piece the probate file together by checking each book. Usually these courts will also have files of loose papers (miscellaneous documents that didn't make it into a book). If you are lucky, the loose papers will be cataloged and indexed. If you are not lucky, you will be spending some serious time at the courthouse. P.S. The old name for the Probate Court in Georgia is the Court of Ordinary so you will see that term on older documents.

"The wills look like they are all in the same hand. Did the clerk write these?"

The clerk hand copied the wills into the will books. The original was kept by the testator but you might find an original or two in the loose papers kept at the courthouse since the original will was normally produced at the first court hearing (when the will was proved).

"Are all wills public record?"

Once a will has been probated, the court records become public record, even contemporary ones.

Here are a couple more questions I received via email:

Mia asks:
"Where do I go to look to see if my 3rd great grandfather had a will?"

You need to know in which county your ancestor lived near the time of his death (or at least narrow it down to a couple of counties). The first place I look is the Family History Library's Card Catalog to see if that county's probate records have been microfilmed. If there is nothing there, I call the county probate court and just ask them if they have probate from 1860 (or whenever). The reason I like to see if it is on microfilm is that most counties will not do research for you to see if there is a will for your ancestor nor will they copy the probate documents (which in some cases could be hundreds of pages long). You can look at the documents if you go to the courthouse in person but many times that just isn't practical. If they are on microfilm you can easily order the films and look at them yourself.

Question from Dave:
"What does "now wife" mean in a will? Does that mean he was married before?"

Maybe, maybe not. All you know for sure is that the now wife is the one he was married to at the time the will was signed. It could mean there was a former wife. If that is the case then you will normally see children from the first marriage named in the will. This is a way to differentiate the children from a former marriage from those of the subsequent marriage. This could also be the man's one and only wife. He may have titled her as the now wife just to show that he was indeed married to her at the time the will was written ensuring that she gets what he wants her to get.

Nancy asks:
"I found an abstract of my great, great, great grandfather's will in a county history book. Can I use this or do I have to get a copy of the actual will?"

You don't have to do anything at all but I suggest you get a copy of the actual will (along with all of the probate documents that go along with it). I found a will abstract a couple of months ago on USGenWeb that was completely wrong. The person that abstracted it assumed that all of the persons named in the will were children of the deceased. Only one was actually named as a child. The abstracter also took it upon himself to "correct" the spelling of two of the names. I got the will off of microfilm about a week later and couldn't believe it. Use abstracts and indexes as clues to help you locate the actual records. I don't use either unless the original documents no longer exist. For example, Greene County, Georgia is missing some early marriage records, however, the Greene County Probate Court has an index that was made before the records went missing and the marriage I need does appear on this index. I use this index as my source because the originals no longer exist.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

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