[NOTE: For more general information about probate records, please see earlier post]
Estates are the most common kind of case in probate records. Estate cases deal with the aftermath of someone's death--the paying off of any debts they had and then the distribution of any assets that are left over.
Sometimes the person had written a will before they died, declaring how they wanted their real estate and personal assets to be distributed and often naming someone to take care of the distribution. This person is known as the executor (male) or executrix (female). Even if there was a will, those cases still had to go through probate court--their will would be entered as part of the probate record and if no one contested the will's validity, the executor/executrix would start the distribution of assets and make a report to the court of the final settlement.
If the person did not write a will before they died, someone would have to petition the court to be appointed as the administrator (male) or administratrix (female) of their estate. They had to swear an oath to the court to perform their legal obligations, and take out a bond for double the amount of the estate's estimated worth (so if the estate was valued at $500, the bond would be for $1000). At least one other person had to be the "surety" on the bond, assuming legally responsibility for paying that money if the administrator/administratrix was found to be derelict in their legal duties. The administrator was then granted Letters of Application. [Note: Sometimes in an estate case you may see a reference to an administrator "de bonis non"--this is someone who has taken over as administrator due to the death, resignation, etc. of the previous administrator].
If the land could not be divided, or if there was not enough cash on hand to pay all the debts, the administrator could petition the court to sell the land. If that still wasn't enough to pay all the debts, the court would label the estate as "insolvent" and pay each of the creditors a fraction of what they were owed.
If there was something left over after all the debts had been paid, the administrator would distribute the remaining assets among the deceased's heirs before making a final report to the court and being discharged from their duties.
Some estate cases took years to settle, leaving behind a large paper trail. Volunteers who are working on the Indiana Genealogical Society's project for Hendricks County probate records have already discovered an estate case that began in 1872 and did not end until 1897.