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.