cemetery with row of old tombstones
Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

How To Find Your Ancestor’s Death Date

Finding an ancestor’s death date can be hard. Explore how and where to find your ancestor’s death records. 

“How do I find my ancestor’s death date?” is one of the most common questions I am asked by readers. So, let’s explore how to find an ancestor’s death date even when a death certificate does not exist.

Hatched, Matched and Dispatched…..

The first time I heard this term was on a tour of Savannah, GA with the Girl Scouts!  I was intrigued.  Actually, I think I may have just liked the rhyming pattern.  (This was in my pre-genealogy days.)

I’m not sure if this is a Southern expression or not, but I find myself running it through my head when I research genealogy to ensure I have found when an ancestor was hatched (born), matched (married) and dispatched (died). I use the phrase as a mental checklist.

We’ll be focusing on the “Dispatched”  part of the phrase today.  [Read about the “Hatched” part in this post.]

The Search For An Ancestor’s Death Date Begins….

Death Certificates are a fairly modern occurrence, but most of our ancestors did not live in a time period when death certificates were generated. Tip: Determine when death certificates began to be used in the area/state you where you research.

Fortunately, as researchers we can determine an ancestor’s date of death using other resources.

Alternate Sources For Finding Your Ancestor’s Death Date

1.The Family Bible

Before you think, “But my ancestors did not leave a Family Bible”,  ask yourself if you have done an exhaustive search for that Family Bible. Just because your side of the family knows nothing of a Family Bible, does not mean one does not exist.

Black and white photo of the spine of a Holy Bible

Hop over and read more about searching for a Family Bible in this “Hatched” post How To Determine Your Ancestor’s Birth Date (Even if No Birth Record is Found). 

(Go ahead, I’ll wait.)

2.The Will

Wills are a common source of information for genealogists. That is, if your ancestor wrote one.  As you analyze your ancestor’s will, make note of the dates mentioned:

  • Date the will is written – This is not the date your ancestor died, but when he wrote the will.  Tip: You can conclude your ancestor died after this date. Learn where and how to find your ancestor's death date. Tips to expand your genealogy research when a death certificate cannot be found.
  • Date the Will is probated – The date the will is probated is also not the death date. Learn where and how to find your ancestor's death date. Tips to expand your genealogy research when a death certificate cannot be found.

If not stated outright, the death date can be narrowed down to between the date the will is written and the date the will in probated. In this example, George Harward [Howard] died between 20 Oct 1869 and 5 Nov 1871.

3.Estate Records

If your ancestor died intestate (or without leaving a will), you as a researcher may be  in a better position to find his death date and/or other genealogical information on him/her and the family.   Of course, this probably was not so good for his family.

Within the estate records, you potentially will find estate inventories, estate sales, bonds appointing an executor, and bonds appointing guardians for minor children. If the deceased family members were a contentious lot, they could generate a lot of paperwork and records dragging out an estate settlement. Those records are your “genealogy gold mine”.

Your ancestor’s death date may be specifically stated.  If so, you have achieved your goal.

If not, again look closely at the dates on the individual records.  You will be able to narrow down a date your ancestor died prior to.

The example below is a document from the estate file of Calvin Maddox of Chatham County, NC providing an allotment to his widow. [Calvin died intestate.] Note the date 8 Dec 1848 is when the allotment was made based upon the direction of the November 1848 term of the county court. This indicates Calvin Maddox died prior to Nov 1848 and likely in the few months proceeding November as his estate was presented for probate and settlement in the Nov court.

Snippet from the 1848 estate record of Calvin Maddox

4. US Federal Census Records

US Federal Census records were taken every ten years and is one of the first records genealogists turn to in beginning their ancestor research. Following an ancestor through the records can help you determine a broad death date range.  if your ancestor appeared in the 1870 census and did not appear in the the 1880 or subsequent census records, explore the theory he died between 1870 and 1880.  Yes, this is a broad time range, but this date range gives you a place in time to start your search for other records.

And, well, a place to start is a good thing.

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Are you familiar with the  US Census Mortality Schedules?  I overlooked these records for a long time! From 1850-1880 these census schedules recorded those individuals who died in the preceding 12 months. Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota created mortality schedules for 1885.

1870 Mortality schedule for Halifax County, VA

The above 1870 US Census Mortality Schedule shows Mary Ragland of Halifax County, VA died in Aug 1869 from typhoid fever.

5. Gravestones & Cemeteries

Let’s talk about gravestones and cemeteries for a moment.  Have you enjoyed an afternoon searching and finding your ancestors’ grave sites?  Photographed the gravestones? Added the information to your family tree?

Photo of a gravestone partially hidden among weeds

Tombstones  are considered to be secondary sources of information.  They can and do (at times) have mistakes.   The information on a tombstone was provided after the your ancestor’s death (obviously!) usually by a family member. A tombstone may not be placed until years after your ancestor’s death. The information on dates and even name spellings are usually accurate, but are only as accurate as the person’s knowledge of the family history.

If you question the date or any of the information found on a tombstone, pursue the cemetery records. Cemetery records would have been generated at the time of the burial and may have more information.

Black and white photo of a cemetery with text overlay reading "how to find an ancestor's death date"

6. Obituaries

Obituaries are a common resource genealogists pursue for an ancestor’s death information. For more recent generations, check family Bibles, family scrapbooks and the “keepsake” box under the bed.  Family members would often cut an obituary out of the paper and tuck it somewhere for safe keeping.

Searching for obituaries will necessitate you delving into newspaper research.  Don’t forget to check religious newspapers and periodicals of your ancestor’s faith.

I am going to make a confession here…..I have always sort of dreaded newspaper research! I know, that’s a bad thing for a genealogist, right?! I have definitely come around, though. It only took one tiny obituary in a Methodist periodical to break open a genealogy brick wall to convert me.  Newspaper research is still not my favorite, but I absolutely jump into it! [Whew, confession is good for the soul! 🙂 ]

Don’t Give Up!

Now you have a few more ideas for finding your ancestor’s death date.  Just because he/she did not have a death certificate does not mean you are not able to find their death date. You may only find a death year or even a time range your ancestor’s death occurred. Sometimes the best we can do is to narrow the death date range. Just don’t give up the search before you have exhausted all of the possibilities!

Ready To Take Your Research To the Cemetery?

Other Posts Of Interest:

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  • comet

    IF your ancestor died in a small town the local paper might not run what we would think of as an obit. BUT! If you have a clue–and some papers even to this day publish an end of year Who Died list—if you can narrow it down you can go look at the issues close to the suspected death date. One thing to look for is–is there a mantion of the person being ill; or in an accident? Ofen a friend or family member would hold a “reception” after the funeral or around that time and THAT might be mentioned in the paper where as the actual death might not be seperated out. This can ALSO give you mmore relatives–I have found several of these for people and widened their family tree usiing the names mentioned in these articles. “Suzy Jones held a tea for the people who traveled from out of town to attend the Services for the late Aldous Appleman. In attendance was Griselda ( Mrs. Egglebert) Manticore (nee Appleman) and her three daughters Angelica, Eliza and Peggy!”

    Now if I could only track down that ONE MIA rellie –and I even know WHERE he is buried! Sigh. Cold trail!

    • LisaL

      Great tips! I have not come across the end of the year list before. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for those. Thanks for sharing.

  • Sara Brower

    Looking for my gg grandfather’s death date between 1903 and 1907 in Chester, PA. There was a family bible referenced in a Civil War Pension file for his daughter in the 19teens but the bible is now gone. I have paged thru every page of local newspapers for entire years. The cemetery where his wife is buried says he’s not there – nor is she (so her death cert must be wrong). I have check every cemetery, including Roman Catholic (they were active Methodists), in the area. He died without an estate – poor. I have checked for wills and admins – nothing. I have checked and double checked census records, city directories for all that are available in that area of Delco (Delaware County). There is rumor that the death records for Chester, PA at that time are in the old city hall building and people have tried to get the city to let the County archivist into the building to look but they are not permitted admittance. Soooooo. It is on the way back burner. Sometimes one has to realize when they are spinning their wheels, the tires are flat and the rims are making sparks on the pavement….

    • LisaL

      You have certainly been exhaustive in your search! Hopefully, admittance to those Chester, PA death records will be allowed in the future. Are there any funeral home records for the area?

    • Kristin

      Did you try looking on Google? Sometimes I type the name of a person along with city & state, if known. A lot of times I get lucky! Also, newspaper.com & I think it’s called Legacy.com, findagrave.com or Billiongraves.com could help

  • Debora

    I have been searching for years to find out just when and where my g-grandmother died. She’s listed in the 1930’s census as living with her son William, and daughter- in-law Ethel in Janesville Wisconsin. I find no other information about her after that either in Janesville or in Chicago where my grandmother, her daughter, lived. One of the biggest problem is that she went by many first names. Her birth name was Birthe Malene Aadnesen- Petersen, however, throughout the years she was called Malla, Birtha and Mollie and is even listed as such on a few census’. I have no living relatives who would be able to help me out with my little quandary. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! Thank you.

  • Joy Scheller

    Funeral programs are another source. Usually give date of birth, death, funeral and sometimes burial with locations, also may give full name and nickname. Some include partial or full obituary. Some will have picture of deceased chosen by family.

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