Understanding Maryland Records
A decedent's estate was administered only when he or she left a will, or died intestate and left sufficient personal property to warrant having an administration. It would appear that only a small percentage of estates went through administration, considering the number of people who died in any given year. A decedent's real property went automatically to the heirs, either according to the will or as outlined by law.
During the colonial period in Maryland, English common law precedents concerning inheritance were usually followed, except as modified by the General Assembly. Early male immigrants to Maryland who reached the age of 20 died on the average just 23 years later, one in five of them before age 30, and two thirds of married or widowed men left minor children. The young widows usually remarried and laws were necessary to ensure that the orphan children were cared for and that their inheritance was not embezzled or squandered. An orphan was a minor whose father had died, regardless of whether the mother was still alive. As early as 1654, the General Assembly passed a law requiring that an inventory and accounting be filed in connection with orphans' estates (Archives of Maryland, Vol 1, p. 354). A law in 1663 set requirements for the care of orphans (Archives, Vol. 1, p. 493). English laws governing the administration of estates were formally adopted in Maryland in 1704 (Archives, Vol. 26, p. 234). Then in 1715 "An Act for the Better Administration of Justice in Testamentary Affairs" (Archives, Vol. 30, p. 331) established the testamentary and guardianship procedures that continued for the remainder of the colonial period.
Relevant legal provisions and some of the terms pertaining to estates include the following.
Administrator or Administratrix de bonis non is a person appointed by the court to complete administration of an estate, usually in cases where the original executor or administrator has died. De bonis non, often abbreviated d.b.n., means of goods not administered.
Administrator with Will Annexed is a person appointed administrator of an estate after the executor named in the will has refused to act or has died.
Annual Valuation is the report of commissioners to view and appraise land belonging to an orphan. The commissioners made an estimate of the annual value of the land, described the land, dwelling houses, outbuildings, orchards, and fences, and noted the state of repair of the improvements. They also ascertained what part of the land the guardian might clear in order to leave sufficient uncleared land for the benefit of the orphan. These reports were recorded as evidence of the condition of the orphan's land and buildings at the time the guardian took over responsibility. If the guardian committed waste or destruction, he or she would be liable.
Debts Sperate and Desperate were debts due to the deceased at the time of his death. Debts sperate were collectible; debts desperate were uncollectible. The law required lists to be filed to ensure that the executor or administrator made every effort to collect the debts for the estate.
Dower and Curtesy. Dower is the right of a married woman to a life estate in one third of her deceased husband's real property if he died intestate. Curtesy is the estate to which a man is entitled, by common law, in the lands of his wife when she dies, provided they have had lawful, living issue.
Executor, Executrix, Administrator, Administratrix. An executor is a man, an executrix a woman, who was named by the decedent in his or her will to handle the estate, file necessary documents, and represent the deceased in deeds, court actions, etc. An administrator is a man, an administratrix a woman, who was named by the court to handle the estate of a person who died intestate.
Guardians and Orphans. The 1715 act included several provisions regarding guardianship. If any part of an estate belonged to an orphan , he or she, if old enough, could choose a guardian to handle the estate. Otherwise the court appointed a guardian. Being a guardian did not necessarily mean having custody. In some instances, the mother was appointed guardian, apparently when she was considered knowledgeable enough to handle land and finances, but usually it was a male relative, or even a stepfather or neighbor. A guardian was often required to file a guardian bond, with security, to ensure proper management. The orphan was to be supported and educated by the income from the estate. The principal of the estate was to be delivered by the guardian to the orphan at his or her maturity, which for this purpose was set at age twenty-one for males, and for females at age sixteen or on the day of her marriage, whichever happened first. If the estate was too small, the orphan was to be apprenticed unless a relative or some other charitable person provided support. These orphans were to be maintained and educated according to their estates and taught a trade.
Inventory. The 1704 act stated that, when the executor or administrator inventoried the personal property of the estate, two next of kin and two creditors of the deceased were required to be present, with two sworn appraisers, all of whom were to sign the document to indicate their presence and approval. The law gave executors and administrators three months to file an inventories.
Realty and Personalty. Realty means real property (real estate). Personalty means personal property.
Relict is the survivor of a married couple, whether husband or wife; that is, a widow or widower.
Renunciation. The 1715 act provided that a widow could within 40 days of probate file a renunciation, releasing everything left to her in her husband's will and taking instead a third of his personal property and her dower interest in his real property, the same as if he had died intestate. If she wished, she could separate real and personal property. For example, if slaves were given to her just for her lifetime and she wanted to be able to bequeath them as she saw fit, she could take the real property given her in the will, but relinquish personal property left her and take instead a third of his personal property, which she would then own.