Allan Jordan presented an excellent overview using examples from his experience. My most important take-away related to terminology. We were told that if one dies with a will it is called in testate, but without a will it is called an administration. Now this was important because for most of my early family members a will was less likely so it is important to be able to ask about administrations which may be in a separate index than wills. Fortunately they appeared to be co-mingled in Brooklyn as at the time I didn’t know to ask for them specifically.
These records are public unless someone requests that a record be sealed. There may be restrictions on copying, but that varies with place. Prior to 1916 only about 25% had a probate file, but when the estate tax went into place in 1916 it became more common. Understanding when different laws went into effect and their impact is important knowledge for genealogists.
So what can one find in a probate file?
In the case of my St Paul discovery there was the name of the town he was from, something we had not known previously. We also discovered a sister of whom we had been unaware. How did we know it was a sister? The will told us the relationship. For each beneficiary it stated who they were, a veritable family tree. It also outlined all the charitable causes to which he contributed, both here and in Israel.
To find a probate or surrogate court record (they mean the same thing) you will need the person’s legal name. It helps to know both where they died and their legal residence. When I sought the death record of my grandmother's aunt I found a rather circuitous path. She lived in Brooklyn, but died at her son’s in Morristown, NJ. There I found her death record, but in the Surrogate Court of Brooklyn there was a document which listed her surviving children and their married names.
Some courts have computerized indexes, others use card catalogues or ledger books. Some have records on site, others are in storage. While I was able to access records without delay it is wise to call ahead to see if they are in storage rather than encounter a delay.
When I went to the records in Surrogate Court, I didn’t find wills, but I did find guardianships and records on deaths without a will. Within the files I found death certificates, addresses and married names of surviving children.
An administration establishes the date of death, assets and heirs. Typically it is a 4 page document that says where the person died and where they lived. The Administrator has to find next of kin and has to do research so if you are lucky you may find a family tree.
Much of this information is on-line as FamilySearch.org expands its digital offerings. I was able to access the card catalog on-line for the Brooklyn Surrogate court to locate my great-grandaunt. Unfortunately they didn’t have the files digitized after 1923 so you will need to go there to retrieve them. If, however, you are seeking a will prior to that time you can access it in your pajamas. Simply go to Familysearch.org and go down the page to Collections. Go to US and enter Probate. If you are interested in Brooklyn, go to the listing for NY and then go to Kings County. You can find the listing in the card catalog and then pull it up from the digital files. Happy hunting!