Probate records are all documents that trace the settling of an estate by the executors or administrators of a decedent. The records range from major records such as wills, inventories, and accounts to less well known documents such as renunciations, petitions, and indentures.
Not everyone who died left a will. Even people who owned a great deal of property may have died intestate (i.e., without making a will). Nevertheless, even if someone died without a will, there are other records that can be used to locate the heirs.
When someone died before 1777, the usual procedure was for the next of kin or other persons, such as creditors, concerned with the estate to go to the county court house to initiate the probation of the estate with the Deputy Commissary. If the decedent left a will, the will would be copied in the county will books as well as the Prerogative Court's will books (except in Anne Arundel County, for which there are only the Pregogative Court records). Theoretically, there should be three sets (two for Anne Arundel County) of each document: the copy made in the Prerogative Court, the copy recorded in the county court, and the original document. Some of the officials involved in this process were the:
- The Commissary General, who had jurisdiction in probate matters. As time went on he became primarily concerned with the hearing of disputes.
- The Deputy Commissary after 1692 was appointed for each county. He recorded the will, inventory, or account in his own books, and periodically would send the documents in his office to the Prerogative Court where they would be recorded again. He would also send a return of his proceedings, which would be recorded in the Testamentary Proceedings.
- The Chief Clerk and Register and later his deputy carried on much of the day to day work of the court.
For more information on the Prerogative Court, its records, procedures and officers, see Elizabeth Hartsook and Gust Skordas, Land Office and Prerogative Court Records of Colonial Maryland, Volume 415 of the Archives of Maryland Online. After 1777 the concerned persons went to the county court house and applied for letters of administration. Each county established an orphans court with judges and a register of wills.
Things to remember when searching for probate records:
- Before July 1777, records were kept at the provincial (colonial) level and at the county level.
- After 1776, the Prerogative Court was abolished, and an office of Register of Wills was established in each county.
- Check each kind of record. You never know when some additional fact will appear.
- At the Maryland State Archives, there are findings aids for both original records and records on microfilm.
- It is important to check the appropriate index to find the exact document you want. Probate records recorded from 1634 to 1777 are recorded in Index 1 (available online), and in the Search Room.
Abstracts of Wills from the Prerogative Court by Carson Gibb
Abstracts of volumes 23 to 31, covering the period from 1743 to 1764.
Huntington Collection of Maryland State Archives Security Microfilm Probate Records
Prerogative Court Records, 1634-1777 MSA TE1. Online microfilm images of volumes in the record series described below. Period of coverage varies by record series. To find an in-depth explanation of how to use these records, click here.
Dr. Lois Green Carr's Biographical Files of 17th and 18th Century Marylanders, St. Mary's County
Transcripts of seventeenth and early eighteenth century documents pertaining to residents of St. Mary's County. Organized alphabetically, with documents in chronological order for each individual; can be accessed by surname.
Wills are the written testamentary wishes of an individual, and show that the testator was alive on the day that the will was signed, and had died before the day on which the will was proven or filed for probate. They may give the names and relationships of heirs, the property or bequests each was to receive, and the name of the person or persons who were to carry out the wishes of the testator. Wills may contain references to the institutions the testator supported, where his or her relatives were buried, or other indications of his or her state of mind. If the will contains name of tracts of land owned by the decedent, the land records for these properties may also contain genealogical information. The Archives contains wills recorded in the Prerogative Court from 1635 to 1777 (Only the microfilm copies now circulate.)
The Archives has Provincial Wills, filed in the Prerogative Court from 1666 to 1777, which may be found in the following record series:
The Archives also has County Wills formerly deposited at county court houses. Search the Guide to Government Records for series name Wills.
Inventories are lists of personal property owned by the deceased, drawn up by two appraisers, who would list the items and value them in money or in tobacco. Land to which the decedent held title was not inventoried but long-term leaseholds could be included. After about 1712, the inventory would have been signed by two of the "greatest creditors" and two of the adult "nearest of kin."
From 1674 to 1718 the Prerogative Court kept the Inventories in the same series of records as the Accounts. Provincial inventories for this period may be found in the following series:
|Inventories and Accounts, Index, 1674-1718
|Inventories and Accounts, 1674-1718
|Inventories and Accounts, Original Record, 1709-1715
After 1718 there was a separate Prerogative Court series for Inventories. Provincial Inventories may be found in the following series:
The Archives also has County Inventories formerly deposited at county court houses. Search the Guide to Government Records for series name Inventories.
Inventories are also found in other papers, such as Testamentary Proceedings.
Administration Accounts were kept to show debts and other receipts paid to the estate and disbursements made to settle the decedent's debts and probate fees. When all accounts had been settled, the remainder was distributed to the heirs and legatees. In some counties, such as Anne Arundel and Harford, there were separate books of distributions. In other counties, the distribution was recorded right after the final account. See also Balance Books or Distributions, below.
From 1674 to 1718 the Prerogative Court kept the Accounts in the same series of records as the Inventories. Provincial accounts for this period may be found in the following series:
|Inventories and Accounts, Index, 1674-1718
|Inventories and Accounts, 1674-1718
|Inventories and Accounts, Original Record, 1709-1715
After 1718 there was a separate Prerogative Court series for Accounts. Provincial Administration Accounts may be found in the following series:
The Archives also has County Administration Accounts formerly deposited at county court houses. Search the Guide to Government Records for series name Accounts.
Testamentary Proceedings contain notations on all wills, inventories, and administration accounts that were brought into the Prerogative Court office. From time to time, there were petitions from heirs who felt that they were not receiving their fair share of the estate of the decedent.
The Archives has Testamentary Proceedings of the Prerogative Court from 1657 to 1777. The index to these proceedings is Index No. 2 MSA S1394 in the Search Room. Testamentary papers and proceedings can be found in the following series:
|Testamentary Proceedings, Index, 1657-1777
||N/A, see MSA S1394|
|Testamentary Proceedings, 1657-1777
|Testamentary Proceedings, Original Record, 1746-1750
Estate Dockets, Registers of Administrations, or Administration Dockets contain information on estates for which letters of administration have been granted. They show the name of the decedent, whether he or she left a will, the name of the executors or administrators, the names of the sureties, and the dates and amounts created by the inventories and sale of effects, as well as the dates on which administration accounts were filed.
The Archives also has County Estate Dockets or Registrations of Administrations formerly deposited at county court houses. Search the Guide to Government Records for series name Estate Papers or Estate Records.
Administration Bonds were records of money posted by the accountant(s) (i.e., executor(s) or administrator(s)) to ensure that they would faithfully carry out their duties. Usually two individuals, or sureties, would sign the bond as well. Note the names of the sureties because there is a possibility that one would be from the husband's side of the family, and the other would be from the wife's side of the family. Early bonds often carried additional notes. For instance, in one case a widow stated that she did not want to administer her husband's estate as she was too old and she would prefer that her oldest son administer his father's estate. If a widow did administer her husband's estate, and, if she remarried, she and her new husband would have to post a new bond.
The Archives also has Administration Bonds formerly deposited at county court houses. Search the Guide to Government Records for series name Adminstration Bonds.
Orphans Court Proceedings contain a record of the proceedings of the orphans court in each county. In addition to showing when wills and other documents were brought in to be recorded, these proceedings may contain records of orphans being bound out as apprentices, or of guardians being appointed. Sometimes in the period during and after the Revolutionary War, veteran of that conflict would appear in the Orphans Court petitioning for financial aid.
The Archives also has Orphans Court Proceedings formerly deposited at county court houses. Search the Guide to Government Records for series name Orphans Court Proceedings.
Accounts of Sales show what personal property was sold, who bought it, and the price paid. Note that when a great deal of furniture is purchased for a low price, it might have been the widow who was making the purchase.
The Archives also has Accounts of Sale formerly deposited at county court houses. Search the Guide to Government Records for series name Accounts of Sale.
Balance Books were kept by the Prerogative Court from 1751 to 1777. They showed the name of the decedent, the accountant (i.e., executor or administrator), the names of the sureties, the balance to be divided up among the heirs, and the names of the heirs. Unfortunately, many times there was a notation that "the names of the heirs are not known to this [Prerogative Court] Office."
Balance books for the provincial period can be found in the following series:
Distributions for Anne Arundel, Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester, Frederick, Harford, Prince George's, St. Mary's, Talbot, Washington, and Worcester Counties are found at the Archives on paper or on microfilm. In other counties, such as Baltimore and Carroll, the distributions are incorporated into the administration accounts. Search the Guide to Government Records for series name Balance Book.
Indentures were written agreements, and were sometimes found as contracts whereby a parent or grandparent, (or judges of the Orphans Court), would bind a child over to a master who would agree to teach a specific trade within a specified time and often to provide some education (which could include reading, writing, and ciphering to the rule of three). The apprentice would agree to serve the master, to learn the trade, and not to gamble or engage in other activities that would impair his or her usefulness to his master. The indentures of the Baltimore County Orphans Court contain indentures of children from many other counties, and even from outside Maryland.
The Archives also has Indentures formerly deposited at county court houses. Search the Guide to Government Records for series name Indentures.
Petitions shed light on the problems encountered by executors and administrators of estates, widows, and orphans. Sometimes the personal estate had to be sold to settle the debts. Sometimes uncooperative heirs made it difficult to render a final account. Many times children who had been bound out as apprentices or their mothers complained that the master was mistreating the child, or not teaching the trade as required by the indenture.
The Archives also has Petitions formerly deposited at county court houses. Search the Guide to Government Records for series name Petitions. Petitions can also be found among the administrative business recorded in the proceedings of the individual county courts.
Renunciations give the name of the deceased, and were filed when his or her administrator or executor declined to serve in that capacity, due to old age or ill health, or for any other reason. Sometimes all of the heirs signed stating that they all declined to administer the estate, and they would prefer that a specific individual be granted letters of administration.
The Archives also has Renunciations formerly deposited at county court houses. Search the Guide to Government Records for series name Renunciations.
Guardian Bonds were bonds posted by the legally appointed guardian, stating that he or she would render an accurate account of all moneys spent for the education, clothing, and food for a minor heir.
The Archives also has Guardian Bonds formerly deposited at county court houses. Search the Guide to Government Records for series name Guardian Bonds.
Guardian Accounts were the accounts of money spent each year by a guardian. Once accounts were no longer filed, it could mean that the child had attained his or her majority or perhaps that the child had died.
The Archives also has Guardian Accounts formerly deposited at county court houses. Search the Guide to Government Records for series name Guardian Accounts.
The references listed below are to card catalogue indexes available only in the Archives' searchroom. Internet access to indices are noted.
- (Probate Records, Colonial, Index), 1634-1777. Index 1. MSA SE4>
- (Testamentary Proceedings, Index), 1657-1777. Index 2. MSA S1394
- (Probate Records, Index), 1777-1854, incomplete. Index 3. MSA S1395
- (Orphans Court Proceedings, AA, Index), 1777-1816, incomplete. Index 82. MSA MSA S1449
- (Orphans Court Proceedings, FR, Index), 1777-1808. Index 83. MSA S1450
- (Orphans Court Proceedings, WA, Index), 1786-1805. Index 84. MSA S1451
Related Court Records
Many times disputes over estates and inheritance would arise. When this happened families took their disputes to Court. Prior to 1854 the petitions of the complainants, the responses of the defendants and the depositions of friends, neighbors and other relatives would be filed with the Court of Chancery, either in Chancery Papers or in large volumes of the Chancery Record. Chancery cases may be found in the following series:
Baltimore County and Baltimore City had their own chancery records:
- (Chancery Docket, Baltimore City Superior Court), 1851-1867 MSA C166
- (Chancery Docket, Index, Baltimore City Superior Court) , 1851-1867 MSA C167
- (Chancery Papers, Baltimore City Superior Court), 1851-1870 MSA C168
- (Chancery Record, Baltimore City Superior Court), 1851-1867 MSA C169
- (Chancery Docket, Baltimore County Court), 1815-1851 MSA C293
- (Chancery Docket, Index, Baltimore County Court), 1815-1851 MSA C294
- (Chancery Papers, Baltimore County Court) 1815-1851 MSA C295
- (Chancery Record, Baltimore County Court), 1815-1851 MSA C296
- (Chancery Record, Index, Baltimore County Court), 1815-1842 MSA C297
- (Chancery Papers, Baltimore County Court), 1834 MSA CM1151
- (Chancery and Land Commission Papers, BA and BC, Index, under Maryland Indices), 1785-1908 MSA S1472
In 1854 the Court of Chancery was abolished. Disputes over inheritance would be tried in the county courts. Look for the following records under the series names Equity Docket, Equity Docket, Index, and Equity Papers.
From time to time some people had to file for the benefit of an Act for Insolvent Debtors. These records can be found in:
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