Beyond the Internet: Week 23 Probate and Deceased Estate


Beyond the Internet

This is Week 23 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. This week the topics are probate and deceased estates. I’d love it if you would join in and either comment or post on your experiences with wills around the world.

“Money makes the world go around” says the song, and it’s always worth remembering this when doing your family history. Strange to say all those clerks didn’t have future genealogists in mind when they wrote up the various documents that become our research bread and butter. More often than not their concern was to follow the money trail and make sure matters financial were accountable.

This is particularly so in the context of this week’s post which follows on from wills last week…all part and parcel of the process which finalises our deceased ancestor’s property and assets no matter how meagre.  The will can sit happily in a drawer while the person is alive but once deceased the legal divvying up generates more documents. Not all of these survive and different jurisdictions will retain different records so you will need to investigate what’s available for your region of interest. Most archives now have useful online guides to these holdings so that should be your first port of call.

Once probate is commenced and advertised in the local papers, the summarising of legal matters arising from the person’s estate begins. In the archival probate packets you may find a dazzling array of information from original death certificates, signed authorisations from the executor or other family members, lists of property and other odds and ends, payments of debts etc. It’s a bit of a legal lucky dip.

Most of my research has been in Queensland or New South Wales so this post will be biased to those resources, though I’ve also had a bit to do with English records. As examples, over the years I’ve found:

  1. My great-grandfather George Michael Kunkel left an estate in Queensland valued at £433. There was £70 in the government savings bank, £200 in a life insurance policy and another £76 in the Railway Service Friendly Benefit. Living priorities were reflected in the property left behind: £47 for a harness and saddlery and only £18 for household furniture and effects, £3 for a water tank and £12 for a moveable hut.[1] George was only a railway ganger so it shows that its worth exploring these records even our labouring ancestors.
  2. The probate record for someone who had died in South Africa but who had property in Queensland (turned out he wasn’t related).
  3. Signatures of every adult “child” in a family when probate took place over 20 years after the husband’s death…who knows why the delay. John Widdup’s death is not recorded in the death indices or inquests or newspapers: only his grave in Urana and the probate records provide any clues.
  4. Lists of property in the will bequeathed to specific family members, some quite distant on the family tree or left to charities.
  5. Lists of debts owed by the deceased including medical and business expenses giving potential insights into the expense of medical treatment relative to income and other living expenses.
  6. Lists of individual land parcels owned at the time of death, allowing you to then chase up the land records to learn more about when and how they were bought. They will also lead you to local histories where you can learn more about the area in that era.

Deceased estate records have similar information but in my experience with them in NSW they provide a far more comprehensive summary of the deceased’s estate. After all the government was lining up for its share of the estate in the form of death duties.  In these I’ve found incredibly detailed lists of furniture and fittings in each room, providing a fascinating insight into how the family lived on a daily basis. Where the family member had a business you may also find a detailed list of their business assets with even more clues for research into land and business.

Another resource you may like to search in the official records (sometimes indexed on microfiche) is Transmission of Real Estate by Death. These provide another clue into the transfer of land from the deceased to his/her beneficiaries. Bear in mind however that if you have an ancestor who is into succession planning he may have done this prior to death – my George Mathias and Mary Kunkel sold their property to their youngest son presumably in quid pro quo to provide them with co-residence and support in their old age. Despite then not owning any property they do not appear to have applied apply for the pension.

Finally don’t forget the newspapers now that Trove makes it so easy to search in Australia. Even if the wills have been destroyed over the years you may get clues about the estate sales through public notice in the papers.  I wrote here about how I found a goldmine of information on the estate of my great-grandfather Peter McSherry through Trove even though that period of wills is not available at Queensland State Archives.

Are you surprised that I ensured my own will includes some specific bequests to listed people? I was happy to ignore the solicitor’s advice that this was unnecessary. On the flip side, a cousin’s even more detailed list of bequests generated an awful rigmarole as we tried to establish what had happened to each minor item, but it also showed that only one cousin and her children had been remembered.  What will generations in the future make of these I wonder?

What’s your experience with Probate or Deceased Estates? I’d love to hear more from a different perspective.  Once again this post comes with a warning that this area is not one of my research strengths. If I’ve got something wrong, including terminology please set me straight so others can benefit as well.


[1] Queensland State Archives: SRS4486- 3- 466. SCT/P466 560/1902. Microfilm Z1670.

10 thoughts on “Beyond the Internet: Week 23 Probate and Deceased Estate

  1. My most interesting and emotional find would have to be letters “hidden” in a family bible for over 120 years. You can imagine my surprise firstly when I located the letters and then the emotion when I started reading a letter written by my Great Great Grandmother to family in Scotland telling them that my Great Great Grandfather had died. It was so heartfelt and she was so worried about her future. There was also another letter written by her father (My Great Great Great Grandfather) who was executor of the Will, which spoke about crops failing, stock dying and depreciation of property values and asking for advance payment of rental from the properties in Scotland to prevent foreclosure on the farm.

    • Sharon what an amazing discovery and such heartfelt letters too. The emotions would have flooded you I imagine. How desperate the conditions around the farm and sad to hear your 2xgreat grandmother’s distress. Thanks for sharing such a great finding.

  2. probate and estate records are something I have totally neglected. I am sure there is a wealth of information waiting for me there too. I just have to learn how to access the records for Alabama and Tennessee. That is something I am going to do during the coming year.

    • Fingers crossed you find some good info Kristin. It seems your records are more complex, being archived in narrower regional areas. At least we’ve got a small number of states to deal with ;-)

  3. Wills & Estate papers are soooo interesting and you have obviously found this Pauleen & co.
    I have some old ones from Gloucestershire yeomen and farm labourers which tell so much about family affairs and property such as:
    • Informative personal comments made about people, not necessarily critical ones.
    • Family connections & relatives named through godchildren, and carers. A long list of nephews left a sheep each!
    • Ex-nuptial children identified and provided for and their mothers named.
    • The wife frequently named as executor to manage the affairs, but a proviso that the property to go to the eldest son, as long as she had residence in the home for her lifetime.
    • The stipulation that she lost any inheritance if she remarried. This not as a possessive act but to protect her from fortune hunters and to preserve the property for the family of the deceased.
    • The perception of the value of limited property in a household, such as the bequest of ‘my best chamber pot to X, and my second best chamber pot to Y’ as well as the best bed to A and the next best bed to B.
    • In one there is mention that the daughters had received their inheritance as their dowry, and later their own husbands were supposed to look after their welfare.
    • In another the mention that a son had decided to emigrate and see the world so he had received his when a young man and could not expect any further share of the property.
    I have a Scottish Will which contains an inventory of his possessions and their value as well as his ‘wealth’ at the time of his death, and who was to continue his business where sons from 2 marriages were working.
    Sadly he did not give any indication that his daughters were married, but specified that their share was not to be used by their husbands, if any, to pay their own debts. One daughter was not married but the other is still ‘lost’.
    What I have found for the old ones (1700s) was the number of times the Will was written on the deathbed.
    Finally it pays to have a friend who can translate any old Latin that is beyond me!

    • What great things you’ve found Anne with so many variations. Definitely a reflection of the times they lived in. Interesting about the ex-nuptial children and mothers of same. Do you want to share your friend? :-)

  4. When out at State Records one time I requested to view the probate packet of my great great grandfather. When it was retrieved I was surprised to discover that it was about 2 inches thick! He was a real estate agent and also rather litigious, so there were a lot of disputes over property that had to be resolved when he died. His will left provisions for £100 for the publication of a mysterious death bed message. Unfortunately, no one has found it published anywhere, so we have no idea of what he wanted to tell us all!

    • Oh how you would want to read that death bed message! Perhaps it never did get published? Perhaps it was libellous or even more subject to litigation. Two inches of docs would have been a windfall!

  5. I have to admit that my first thought does not go to Wills and Probate —by the same token some of my best information has come from these sources. A couple of years ago, I ordered the county records of my dad’s probate. What an eye opener! The version handed down by my mother was an odd take on the real (pun? perhaps) estate matters. Rather like the looking through a crazed glass. Nonetheless, I just made a note to check wills and probate for a couple of folks I am currently researching. Really like this series that you are doing — keeps me focused and/or good reminders.

    • I only wish I had more wills/probate in my family. Seems like they were intent on dealing with things before their deaths. Sounds like your Dad’s was interesting and proving the unreliability of some oral history perhaps? Thanks for the comment on the series…probably need to do more “practising what I preach” but handicapped a little these days by not being near archives except on mad dashes interstate.

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