Understanding Your ...

Ancestors in the Records:
Other Western European Records: Probate Records

Probate records, a type of court record or notarial record in some countries, were used to distribute a person’s possessions after his or her death. Probate records can come in several types, but will be referred to generically here.

Probate records vary in their value and ease of use from country to country. These records are only available for part of the population, but how large this part was also differed. While in some countries only relatively wealthy people left probate records, in other countries many people who owned land or even basic possessions left one. In a few countries, probate records are quite common due to particular laws, such as one passed in Norway in 1687, which stated that a probate was mandatory when a parent died leaving children who were not of age (25 years old).

Several characteristics of probate records make them particularly useful when you can locate one. In some places, probate records began even before church or other records did. Also, they can contain detailed information about families such as relationships, ages, and places of residence.

Probate records also offer the rare opportunity to get a personal glimpse into the lives of your ancestors. Probate records from my Swedish ancestors who died in the early 1800s, for example, contain several pages listing out the family’s possessions item by item. From these papers, I can deduce that one father ran a side business as a carpenter (based on the amount of carpentry tools he had). I can learn about the number of shirts and hair scarves the wife had, what kind of animals the family kept, and even what the bed sheets looked like. These details allow me to make a connection to my ancestors that no other records do.

To find a probate record, you usually need to know at least approximately when and where your ancestor died. Some countries, such as England and Sweden, have good indexes available for at least some of the probate records. This can make locating them relatively painless. But, the challenge doesn’t end there. Often some of the initial information in the record will be relatively easily to extract. Understanding the full probate can be quite difficult, though. The sometimes lengthy documents may contain poor handwriting, obsolete words, and legal terms. If it is written in an unfamiliar language, most people will find deciphering it next to impossible. If you find a record like this for your ancestors, you may consider paying someone to translate it.