Probate Records and your New York Genealogy

Probate is the court process following a person’s death which:

  • proves the authenticity of the deceased person’s will
  • appoints someone to handle the deceased person’s affairs
  • inventories the deceased person’s property
  • collects debts due the estate
  • pays debts and taxes
  • identifies and notifies heirs
  • distributes the deceased person’s property according to the will or, if there is no will, according to law

Probate records include wills, estate inventories, letters of administration, and other documents relating to the administration and settlement of deceased persons’ estates. These records contain information on the property of dead persons and those who are no longer able to handle their own affairs. Probate records state identity and relationships of heirs and order legal actions taken to prove wills and settle estates.

Before 1787, wills and other papers relating to the estates of deceased persons in New York were filed in the provincial courts in Albany. The New York State Archives holds these records, including appellate court records. Since 1787, wills and probate papers were filed in and retained by the Surrogate’s Court in each county.

Knowing approximately when your ancestor died is the first step in locating the records–where the will was probated and filed. And what supporting documents were created.

A witness is someone who:
__is present in court to certify the signatures
__is a resident of the jurisdiction where the document is issued
__is at least 14 years of age, usually 21 years of age or older
__ is not a legatee or beneficiary of the property in question
__can be related to one or both of the contracting parties–the court expected at least one family member to sign off on the court documents

The term “eldest son” is a legal term and does not imply that there are other sons! The eldest son inherited under primogeniture and entail. He did not have to be named in the will. Distribution of his inheritance was automatic under the law. The eldest son was usually “the heir of the body” mentioned in land and probate proceedings. He was responsible to oversee the welfare of the family as a whole and to provide for his mother, if she was left a widow. He also was expected to provide his sisters with dowries upon marriage and to launch his younger brothers into adulthood if they were not marked for the church or the military. This could involve purchase of military commissions or acquisition of a church living if needed.

Research Strategy One. Search for your ancestors in online resources by name Look for wills of siblings, in-laws, namesakes, and other relatives. Those siblings who never married or who died without heirs, often left their stuff to relatives who may be unknown to you. This approach is not a one-time shot–you will want to check these online sites frequently for newly indexed records that may include your ancestors.

Research Strategy Two. Nearly 25% of all wills filed were made by women–of all social classes and locations. And while only 15-20% of all people filed wills, those wills can include up to 48% of the population in any given area. These stats require that you search for the wills naming your female ancestors that tie these ladies and other relatives into family units as you build them, and then tie them to your pedigree, whether you have a previous reference to a will or not. For example,
Will of the widow Barbara Rampton, Grewell (Greywell), Hampshire: 2 Aprill 1695 (Hampshire Archdeaconry Wills, FS #1597338)

Bequests: Everyone received 20 pounds–
__”unto my brother Richard Rampton”
__”unto my son-in-law William Rampton”

Kinsman or Kinswoman named as legatees:
__John Baigen Junior
__Christopher Steapeles
__Jone Grove
__John Mortemur
__William Cooperthwait
__George Watts
__Sarah Collens|
__Elizabeth Mortmur
__”unto Will Rampton my Grandchild”
__”unto my son-in-law James Hare, whome I make my sole execut.”
__my very good friends:  John Baigen Senior and Richard Lynam of Grewell to be my overseers

Witnesses:  The marke of…Elizabeth Vidler, Rebeckah Vidler, Elizabeth Helyor

Note the contents of this will–many relatives, some precisely identified by relationship. Note also the number of women mentioned and the role they played. I have stripped this will down to the bare bones so you could see the parts. Your favorite New York genealogist, Arlene Eakle.

PS English and Dutch traditions and customs vied with each other for mastery in early New York. And in many families they combine. Watch carefully.




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