Using Court Records


What are type of records are kept in the county courthouse?

A number of records are kept in the county courthouse because this was the place of business. While the legalese is not the most pleasant reading, probate and court records document the lives of our ancestors. Court records include information about adoption, debt, divorce, naturalization, lawsuits, guardianships and appointments. Probate records are records related to the death of ancestor and the distribution of their estate. These records often include wills, inventories, accounts, bonds, etc.

Kenyatta D. Berry-fade_x.png Someone "dies testate" if they've passed and left a will. That person is "intestate" if they haven't left a will. Terms of inheritance vary by state but typically when there is no will, the spouse and children will inherit. Prior to emancipation, if a white man wanted to free his mixed race child after his death his white family often challenged this. Slaves were property and the slavery was about economics. Any challenges to the will were recorded in the court and left a paper trail.

Where are these records kept?

Most of these records are located in the county courthouse where the probate or estate records were filed. Some of these records are on available online but not indexed. Depending on the county you might be able to find information online or hire a local researcher to pull the records for you.

How are they helpful in genealogy research?

Estate and probate records are essential for genealogical research because they can contain family relationships, locations and land ownership. For African American research, they are critical because they include slaves and possible slave relationships. A genealogical gem available at the county courthouse is the registration of free blacks and the acknowledgement of marriages and children of slaves. In Culpeper County, Va., the marriages and children of slaves that were not legally recognized during slavery were recorded after emancipation for legal purposes. These documents have been transcribed in Some Pre-1871 Vital Statistics on Colored Persons of Culpeper County, Virginia, by Robert A. Hodge. 

— Kenyatta D. Berry

Additional Resources

United States Probate Records

Wills and Testaments

United States Court Records

Lowe, J. Mark. “Estate laws and their effect on families.” NGS Magazine, July-September 2012, 21.

Lowe, J. Mark. “Estate law and family complications.” NGS Magazine, October-December 2013, 31.

Evans, Barbara Jean. The New A to Zax: A Comprehensive Genealogical Dictionary for Genealogists and Historians. Second Edition. Champaign, Illinois: B. J. Evans, 1990.

Researching Free People of Color

Researching Free People of Color

How do you know if your ancestor was a free person of color?

Where to Start Tracing Origins

Where to Start Tracing Origins

A genealogist is like a detective, searching for clues in the records.

Tracking Overseas Connections

Tracking Overseas Connections

Numerous records exist - both online and offline - to help on your quest.

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