Saturday, May 22, 2010

RESEARCH TIP: Probate Records

When Indiana formally became a state in 1816, it did so with a circuit court in each county. That court had jurisdiction for probate cases. Then in 1829, state law provided for the creation of a probate court in each county, separate from the circuit court. These probate courts remained in existence until 1853, when Indiana law replaced them with a Court of Common Pleas in each county. This court was responsible for hearing probate cases, but could also handle divorces, naturalizations, and criminal cases for small infractions.

Courts of Common Pleas existed in Indiana until 1873, and were then abolished. In most counties, the responsiblity for probate cases then reverted back to the circuit courts, where it is unchanged to this day. However, Marion County (Indianapolis), Vanderburgh County (Evansville) and St. Joseph County (South Bend) have established their own probate courts over the years to help with the caseloads.

The most common types of probate cases are estates and guardianships. Estates are about someone who has died (or been declared dead)--the payment of any debts they had and then the distribution of any remaining assets among their legal heirs. Guardianships are often about minors (children under the age of 21) who are legal heirs to an estate, but they can also be about adults, especially if the person has been found to be of an "unsound mind" or "insane," thus legally incapable of managing their own affairs. Like other kinds of court records, probate records are a great way for researchers to prove relationships between people, especially female ancestors who may otherwise be "missing" from records.

There are different kinds of probate records:

Probate Order Books contain a brief summary written by the court clerk of what happened each time the probate case came to court. Entries in the order books are in chronological order by the court term (with some probate cases continuing for several terms). Pictured: a 1903 entry from a probate order book.

Complete Probate Books contain a summary of the probate case from beginning to end, as written by the court clerk. This summary was made only after the case was finished and was done for an additional court fee.

Probate Packets—also known as “loose papers,” they contain the original documents that were submitted to the court during the probate case—IOUs, receipts, affidavits, newspaper notices, etc. Pictured: a probate packet from 1844.

The Hendricks County Clerk's office has a Microfilm Department, located on the ground floor of the Hendricks County courthouse in Danville (next door to the Self-Service Legal Center--take the west entrance to the courthouse and then turn left). It has microfiche of Hendricks County court records (including probate packets) from the 1900's.

The Microfilm Department has an index to the microfiche on a card file, which they will search for you. NOTE: After the court records were put on microfiche, the papers were destroyed. Unfortunately, the images on the microfiche are not always clear. Pictured: an administrator's application from a 1924 estate case.

Hendricks County's probate packets for 1824 through the early 1900's are kept in the basement of the Hendricks County courthouse. The Indiana Genealogical Society has a project where volunteers are unfolding and organizing these papers, then digitizing them so they can eventually be put online as a free database for the public. The project is in progress--currently there are digital files for about 100 cases.

Hendricks County's Probate Order Books for 1825-1918 and Complete Probate Books for 1826-1905 have been microfilmed. That microfilm is available at the Family History Library, the Indiana State Library and also at the Plainfield library.

NOTE: Hendricks County's probate order books were numbered beginning with volume 1 in 1825, but when the Court of Common Pleas was created in 1853, that numbering started over again. So it's important to know not only the volume number, but what time period it referred to. For example, volume 1 covers 1825 to 1835, and volume 2 covers 1835 to 1839, but then there is the volume 1 that covers 1853 to 1856, the volume 2 that covers 1856 to 1860, etc.

The Archives on the Hendricks County Government website includes digital files of the probate order books for 1825-1847 and a partial file of the order book for 1850-1852. They are in the Judicial Archive section. Pictured: a page from an order book for 1839.

Many of the probate order books have an index at the front (see example). These indexes are separated by the letter of the last name but are not alphabetical--entries were made in the index at the time that the case went to court, so you may need to browse through all the entries under that letter in order to find the case you need.

The Hendricks County GenWeb site has a searchable Index to Hendricks County Probate Order Books. The index is in progress; it currently covers the volumes for 1825-1844 and 1900-1918.

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