Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Finding Relatives in Probate Files

I wrote yesterday about the new presentation on probate records I recently created.  Probate is the process of validating someone's will and distributing his belongings according to his wishes, or showing there is no will (or no valid will) and dividing the belongings according to the applicable laws in that place and time.  Probate files can be fantastic sources of family information.  I always try to get every record I can find in my research, but sometimes the reason that finally prompts me to spend the money on a probate file may be unusual.  The reasons I ordered two of the most informative probate files I have received was less for the normal genealogical ones than to find out if someone's story was true.

In the first situation, I had been told by more than one relative that my grandfather's older sister was not a very likeable person.  In particular, my grandmother told me that when her father-in-law (my great-grandfather) died, he left only $1 to this sister and the rest of his estate to the other siblings.  I had been curious about the truth of this story for several years, but Kings County (Brooklyn), New York wanted $70 (!) for a copy of the probate file, and that was a tidy sum for me ten years ago.  But I saved my pennies and finallly splurged on the order.

When I received the packet, the first thing I read was the will.  I discovered that my grandmother had exaggerated a little, but the story was substantially true.  In the first section of the will, my great-grandfather left bequests of several hundred dollars to five of his six children, but to Sarah he left only $25.  The next section consisted of bequests to many social and benevolent organizations.  He also left some money to be spent on a new tombstone for his own father's grave in Kamenets-Litovsk, Poland, which was valuable information.  The last section of the will stated that the remainder of the estate was to be divided equally among all of his children — except Sarah.  So it was true — even he didn't like her.

In addition to learning that the story was true and where my great-great-grandfather was buried, the other valuable information came from when the will was actually probated, or proven, and the assets distributed.  One of the bequests in the will had been to my great-grandfather's sister, still in Europe.  I didn't have her correct name prior to this (my great-aunt was wrong on both first and married names).  Unfortunately, she predeceased him, because she stayed in Europe during World War II and perished during the Holocaust.  Her inheritance was divided among her six surviving children, who were listed by name with their addresses, four in Israel and two in Buenos Aires, Argentina (which also finally gave me names for the "cousins in South America" I had heard about from my mother and a cousin).  After all these years I'm still trying to find information about the South American cousins, but I have managed to obtain contact information for two of the cousins who went to Israel.

The second probate file that gave me a huge boon was for my stepsons' grandfather.  I had been told that each of his children should have had an inheritance of about $2 million, but one daughter kept filing against the estate saying that she didn't owe for a loan she had received from her father, and all the attorneys' fees ate into the estate to the extent that everyone received only $200,000 instead.  I decided I wanted to know if that story was true, so I requested the file from Los Angeles County.  (That was entertaining in and of itself, as the file ended up being more than 600 pages and the order was processed in about five stages.)

Again, the basic gist of the story was true.  The sister in question did make multiple claims that she did not owe for the loan.  The executor made a counterclaim each time.  Lots of paperwork, lots of hours racked up by attorneys.  She ended up having to pay the money back into the estate, but the process had to have whittled the estate down.  I don't know if the value of the inheritances would really have equaled $12 million, but the estate included many properties around the Los Angeles area, so it's plausible.

But the true gold in the file was, again, the list of heirs with addresses.  I had been trying to track down the half-sister in the family with no success.  There she was in the list, with her address.  (Everyone's children were listed also!)  Surprisingly, the address was only half an hour from where I was living.  Even more surprising, she still lived there, although the probate file was 24 years old!  I showed up at her door one day and introduced myself.  We had a lovely three-hour talk, and the information she gave me helped me track down the famous Hollywood cousins in the family.

Not everyone has intriguing stories to try to prove, but probate files can help almost everyone by supplying names, family relationships, and more.  If you haven't used them yet in your research, order one soon.  Look for probate records at the county level, at the superior court in most states.


  1. Great article, Janice! I love getting these little glimpses into your very colorful family histories. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Carol! When family history is colorful, it does make it more interesting, doesn't it?


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