Funeral for Judy Garland. 1969. NY Times.
“Impressed with the uncertainty of Life and anxious to arrange my worldly affairs…”
Probate records are often gainful resources in genealogy research, yielding core genealogical data like names, dates, locales, and family information. The chief document in probate records is the will. A will is a legal instrument whereby one is allowed to lawfully remain in possession of property after having been borne to the ancestral sepulcher. A will must be “proven,” or probated, in Surrogate’s Court, where it is validated for the executors to carry out the “will” of the deceased, or “testator,” in the eventual dispossession of the property listed in the inventory provided by the will. Surrogate’s Courts are state courts located at the county level which act as “surrogates” of the State of New York.
In colonial New York, wills were filed in the capital, New York City. The records were moved upstate after the Revolution, where today the bulk of pre-Evacuation probate and will records are at the New York State Archives.
For probate records in New York City, consisting of five counties with five Surrogate’s Courts, there are three ways to go about researching a will:
- Online databases
- Visit the Surrogate’s Court records room
- NYPL print and microfilm collections
Depending on the year, one should start with the digitized resources available at Family Search, where probate records for many U.S. States have been scanned, but have not been indexed by name, so one must access the material digitally the same way one would browse the physical copies.
Basically, the process involves two steps; first check the available index, and then use the reference in the index to find the will.
On the homepage of Family Search, find "Search" on the toolbar and then select "Records" from the dropdown menu. On the search screen, instead of typing in a name, look towards the bottom of the page, and click "Browse all published collections." Then, in the search bar at the top left, where it says “filter by collection name,” type in the name of the state in which you are researching, and pair it with the term "probate." The collections list will then filter to a particular resource; for example, Alabama Probate Records, or Ohio Probate Records.
In this instance, one would search for the collection "New York Probate Records, 1629-1971." Even though the name indicates a date range to 1971, a bulk of the NYS probate records in Family Search date to about the 1920s.
Note that the Bronx County Estate Files and Queens County Probate Records also appear in the results; these collections have been digitized and organized separately, with the copious Queens materials dating to the 1950s. There is also a similar separate collection of Kings County Estate Files (1866-1923), which has been indexed and is keyword searchable by first and last name.
Next, select the county where the will would have been filed, likely the county where the death occurred.
Then browse the list of probate resources available for that county, and select the relevant index.
Note that wills probated in Kings County before 1787, when the Surrogate's Court was first established in Brooklyn, will be found in the indexes and libers under New York County.
For pre-1787 colonial wills in New York State, search the Abstracts of Wills on File in the Surrogate's Court, city of New York. These 17 volumes include wills for deaths that occurred in all counties in the state of New York, which, according to the procedures of the time, were filed in New York City. Also, these abstracts are also searchable online at Family Search.
Counties will often use different indexing systems, some of which include:
- a straightforward alphabetical list, by last name, and within a certain date range.
- alphabetical only by the first letter of the surname; for example, all surnames beginning with "H" will be grouped together, but in no order.
- alphabetical only by the first letter of the surname, and then grouped in columns by the first vowel to appear after the first letter.
- alphabetical by surname, then grouped by first letter of the first, or given, name.
Next, find your subject decedent in the index. Adjacent to the name, a liber number, or volume number, is listed, with a corresponding page number; this indicates where the researcher will find the text of the actual will.
Browse the available resources to find the corresponding volume, and locate the cited page number.
Unlike vital records, wills and probate records are accessible to the public with little privacy restrictions. One can access probate records onsite at the records room of the Surrogate’s Court. The clerks at the Kings County records room, at 2 Johnson Street, are affable, orderly, and helpful to researchers. The Surrogate's Court archives for New York County, at 31 Chambers Street, are operated by a professional archivist with a Master’s in Library Science, and offer a searchable database to the probate collections. The Unified Court System provides access info for Surrogate's Courts in New York City. For wills filed before 1787, see the collections at the New York State Archives.
If one has still hit the brick wall, and is researching wills from the seventeenth through early nineteenth century, the complex of New York State probate records on microfilm at NYPL might be helpful. Use the below subject heading formats to search relevant material in the NYPL catalog:
- Wills -- New York (State) -- New York.
- Wills -- New York (State) – [NAME OF COUNTY] County.
- Probate records -- [NAME OF STATE] -- [NAME OF COUNTY].
- Wills -- New York (State) – New York County.
- Probate records -- New York (State) -- New York.
- Probate records -- New York (State) – Otsego County.
Locating an individual probate record in any of the microfilm collections, as noted above for the digital resources, first requires checking the corresponding index.
The language of wills is archaic and abstruse—"probate" is derived from probatus, in Latin, "tried, tested, approved"—and suggests that a system of distributing the property of the dead according to the decedent's sentient wishes is both a legal procedure and sacred ritual dating to the earliest generations of civilized societies. That a will must be verified by a judge might also indicate that, in the history of humankind, the concept of property ownership was concomitant with treachery, dishonesty, and avarice among family members. Note the twenty-nine people who claimed to be heirs to the estate of Minnesota rock demigod Prince, who died intestate, but were rejected as lawful relatives by a Carver County judge in the District Court Probate Division.
Reflecting some of the singular verbiage of probate records, there is a handful of additional paperwork that might accompany the actual will which can include significant genealogical data. For example:
- The executor, having been named by the decedent to administer the estate, initiates the probate proceedings by applying to the court for "letters testamentary.” After 1830, the executor would have filed a petition.
- If the decedent had left no will, or died "intestate," then "letters of administration" were drafted by parties who sought to administer the estate.
- Sometimes one finds "orders," which are made by the judge and can vary in genealogical detail.
- A decree, or a "final decree," articulates the judge's decision and can include useful summary details of the probate case.
- A “renunciation” is filed when an executor officially “renounces” his or her role in the proceedings.
- “Administration bonds” are payments made by executors which the state promises to return, or void, when the probate matter is lawfully and finally administered.
- “Estate files” usually include the will and any other paperwork filed in the case. Some counties might refer to these bundles as “probate packets” or “proceedings.” In Dutchess County, one finds a collection of “Ancient Documents” dated 1721-1862 and indexed by surname of the decedent.
All of these materials are searchable using an index, which is usually found in the front pages of the subject records, or as a separate bound volume.
Research using probate records may be conditioned by the shifting of New York State inheritance laws, or certain idiosyncrasies in access and recordkeeping. The Milstein Division has plenty of guidebooks; in particular, see New York State Probate Records.
Additional guides to probate records include:
- New York County Surrogate’s Court
- New York State Archives Probate Records
- New York Probate Records (FamilySearch Historical Records) | Wiki
- Online New York Death Records, Indexes and Obituaries
As always, please be encouraged to dispatch queries to the U.S. History, Local History, and Genealogy Division, at email@example.com. Answering reference questions is how librarians evolve as librarians, and no answer proves a last testament.