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Probate 101: What to Know Before You Research a Deceased

Last Will and testament document on wooden table close up

Building a genealogical tree is a multi-step, complex process. Establishing a complete picture of a decedent’s heritage may be necessary when administering probate in order to find the proper heirs to the estate. Below, we offer a few tips for estate administrators and family members conducting research in connection with probate. For qualified, comprehensive assistance identifying the proper heirs to an estate, call an experienced forensic genealogist.

State Intestacy Laws

If the decedent had a will or other estate planning documents in effect at the time of their death, the administration of the estate should be relatively straightforward. If they died without a will (if they died “intestate”), then state “intestacy” laws dictate what happens to their estate. State laws differ on who inherits first and in what amounts. Typically, spouses and dependent children inherit first, followed by siblings and parents of the deceased.

If you need to go beyond that to find the proper heirs, make sure you review and understand the applicable state’s intestacy laws to know which family members you should find next. Depending on the state, different heirs may be entitled to different portions of the estate. You can find most state statutes by searching online.

Finding the Right Probate Records

In order to conduct your research into the deceased, you need to make sure you are looking at the right probate records. Make sure you identify the actual county in which the deceased lived and all counties in which they owned land. Boundaries can change over time, so make sure you know the proper county at the time of death.

Probate court records can aid in your search. Not all records will be searchable online; some will require manual browsing. You might need to send requests to specific probate courts to obtain the records you need to browse. Probate court record indices can help you track down the primary sources you’ll need to build out your plan.

Types of Death Records

When you are going backward in time to find ancestors of the deceased, you might need to rely on several different records to find all relevant family members. These include state death certificates, local death records, death registers, cemetery records, census mortality schedules, obituaries, burial permits, and additional probate records. Obtaining these records can require going to a variety of different sources, including online databases, courts, county registers, and even library vaults.

Not every type of death record is as reliable as the next; for example, an obituary might misspell the decedent’s name or misidentify next of kin. Be careful with your research and, where possible, cross-reference from different sources.

Be Careful, and Be Detailed

When conducting your research, be careful and pay close attention to what you read. If the dates or names do not line up with other parts of your research, you might have identified a person from a different family with the same last name. Transcribe all documents and evidence you find, put the details into a comprehensive genealogical plan, and compare and contrast evidence from different sources.

If you’re an estate administrator in need of experienced assistance identifying and locating missing heirs to an estate and for determination of heirship proceedings, or heir research services in order to satisfy due diligence requirements, contact the professional, thorough, and effective forensic genealogists at Von Langen, LLC at 561-748-2936.