© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2002
The wag who once said that you never know a person until you share an inheritance with them was probably a genealogist. You can collect a slew of vital records, latch on to the family Bible or copy dozens of census rolls, but the most reliable documents are ones in which money changed hands.
Wills and probate records are two of the best. Wills are the legal means by which people dictate how they want to dispose of their worldly goods. Probate records reflect how these assets are distributed. Wills name names and prove family ties, but probate records usually contain the most valuable data.
The executor of the will or a court-appointed administrator disburses all assets and must account in writing to the court exactly how the estate was settled. If personal and household items are sold, the overseer is required to report who bought each item and how much the person paid for it. All expenses are itemized.
Most probate proceedings won't drag out for 10 years as Moses Johnston's did, but when they do, the results are a genealogical jackpot. Johnston's will, dated March 7, 1883, was succinct. After the usual introduction, he bequeathed everything to his wife, Elizabeth, which included 100 acres of land, livestock, sleds and personal possessions. However, since the couple had no children, Johnston specified exactly what was to be done with anything remaining after Elizabeth's death. Two churches were to share half the proceeds. The remaining 50 percent was to be divided equally between his siblings and her siblings.
Moses died in 1898. Elizabeth passed a decade later. The legal proceedings outlasted many heirs. More than half a dozen siblings died before the estate was settled. According to the provisions of the will, their offspring inherited those shares. Since many nieces and nephews are enumerated in the probate records, along with the nieces' marital surnames, the result is an incredibly well-documented family tree that often covered two generations.
As a bonus, Johnston's probate records swept away the fog surrounding his family and another Johnston clan residing nearby. The patriarch of each family was named Tobias, and both were married to women named Mary.
To glean the most from probate records, examine every loose piece of paper and photocopy any entry that appears remotely significant. The tiniest scrap may yield vital information. When DeWalt Snyder died in June 1828, he left a sizeable estate and no will. Eva, his youngest daughter, was among his heirs.
Between June and the following December, Eva married Samuel Murray.
This fact may have gone unproven except for a crumpled bit of paper tucked away in the probate file.
In a handwritten note, Samuel relinquished all future claims to the estate by him or his wife, Eva Snyder Murray. Ultimately, this note turned out to be the only legal document ever uncovered to confirm that DeWalt Snyder's daughter and Samuel Murray's wife were the same person.
Not every will was recorded. Not every estate went through probate. But if legal proceedings took place, they did so in the county where the deceased resided. These documents are public records.
To get copies, write to the pertinent county courthouse, addressing your letter to the Registrar of Wills or Probate Records. Put "Attn: wills/probate" on the outside of the envelope.
Request that every item in the file be copied. Expect to pay from 50 cents to $3 per page. However, some courthouses now also charge a search fee of $4 or $5. Ask about costs in advance.
-- Donna Murray Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, she can't take phone calls, but you can write to her c/o Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read her column online at www.sptimes.com. Type "Donna Murray Allen" in the search box.