Saturday, May 29, 2010

RESEARCH TIP: Probate Records - Estates

[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.

An estate case usually started with someone stating to the probate court that the person had died; thus, estates are a great way for researchers to verify someone's death, particularly when dealing with the period before death records were kept in Indiana. Pictured: an affidavit stating that someone had died in 1855 (bonus information: the person making the affidavit even states what their relationship was to the deceased).

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].

An inventory was taken of all of the deceased's personal property, as well as any real estate that they owned. The Inventory included an estimate of the value of each item and can also give you some clues about their profession (for example, ladders and paintbrushes for someone who was a house painter). The administrator would then arrange a public sale, and present a Sale Bill to the court, showing how much each item had sold for and who had bought it (often neighbors and relatives bought the items). The widow had the right to take 1/3 of her husband's assets and the Sale Bill would reflect which of the items had been taken by the widow. Pictured: an inventory from 1870.
Indiana law established a minimum value that an estate had to be in order to go through the probate process. For example, in 1866 it was $300; by the 1870's, it was $500. If the value of that estate was below that minimum, the widow could receive all the assets directly. When someone petitioned to have this law applied to an estate, an appraisal of all the deceased's real estate and personal property was taken, to verify the value. Pictured: a widow's application from 1879.

In a time when people rarely had ready access to cash, IOUs were a common form of currency, and thus are often found in estate cases, as all the people that the deceased owed money to submitted their claims for payment to the probate court. Conversely, any IOUs the deceased had in their possession from other people are also part of the estate. Pictured: an IOU from 1832, where the deceased had promised to pay $30 at 12.5% interest.

A bill from a doctor for their care during the last sickness can also be found in the estate case. The dates of their visits and the medicines they prescribed can give you an insight into their patient's health. Pictured: a doctor's bill from 1828 [NOTE: the patient has "Dr" after their name; this is not an indication of a medical profession, but of them being the Debtor--the person who owes money].

A bill for the purchase of a tombstone (usually months or even years after the death) is also a common part of the estate case. Sometimes the bill would include the details of the inscription to be added - a wonderful detail particularly since that tombstone may not be legible or even still exist today. Pictured: a bill for a tombstone purchase in 1859, complete with the sad verse to be added (at 2 cents extra per letter).

If the deceased own land, it would go through partition--a legal term for the equitable division of the land among the heirs. Inheritance laws, not the court, determined who was considered an heir. Pictured: an entry from an 1897 probate order book showing how a parcel of land had been partitioned.

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.

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