Wills and estate records are a rich source of information when researching your genealogy. Wives, children and other family members can be found among the records. A glimpse inside the lifestyle of your ancestor is found among the records. Did your ancestor’s family members get along? Did your ancestor have any wealth? The potential to find all of this and more is there.
Wills are some of the best records to start your genealogy research. Types of information found include:
- The date a will is written and then probated narrows down the death date range for your ancestor.
- The location of your ancestor.
- Was a wife mentioned? Oftentimes her name is given.
- Names of children. If several children are mentioned, often they are listed in order of birth. Be careful, though. This is not always the case. Also, the children listed may not represent all of an ancestor’s children. Adult children who have moved away may not be mentioned. Also, children who predeceased a parent will not be mentioned in a will.
- Other family members and relationships. These may include brothers, sisters, and grandchildren. Tip: Don’t overlook a grandparent’s will when tracing your heritage. If a parent predeceased their parent, the grandchildren inherited their share and may be named in the will
- Associates of your ancestor. Who witnessed the will? These men would have some relationship whether close friend, business partner or relative.
- Did you ancestor like his relatives? Some testators hold nothing back when stating their feelings about children and/or who their children married. David Talbot of Campbell County, VA (1761-1853) did not approve of who his daughters married. Stating his dislike, he left only $1 of a very large estate his daughters and their husbands!
TIP #1: Know the identity of everyone mentioned in your ancestor’s will and their relationship to the deceased.
Tip #2: Know the terminology and legal definitions in the wills and estate records.
When you analyze your ancestor’s will and estate papers, know the laws of inheritance of the pertinent time period. Did all the land go to the eldest? Or was the land divided equally among all of the children?
Make an effort to understand the legal terms such as a whole blood child or half blood brother. These will be important as you untangle children from multiple wives.
Black’s law dictionary is a fabulous resource referencing the legal terms. (I use the 1910 edition as it is free on Google books.)
What if there is no will for your ancestor?
Sometimes this can actually be a good thing. If your ancestor had land or an estate of any value and died intestate (without a will), lots of records would have been generated to disburse the estate. An assessment of the estate’s value would have been done, an executor appointed, a widow’s provision may have been done. Records for an estate sale may have been recorded. If your ancestor left children under the age of 21 (i.e. minor children), records appointing a guardian would have been filed.
Pay special attention to your ancestor’s estate sale. Every item sold will be listed along with the person who bought it and how much they paid. These individuals represent the community your ancestor live in! Often other family members can be found listed here. Make note of the names. They may become important in the future when breaking down brick walls.