The probate process consists of a court locating and recording an individual's assets after death, paying outstanding financial obligations, and releasing the balance of the estate to identified heirs or beneficiaries. Probate court records are filed for this process and kept as a matter of public record, accessible through the court in which the probate was administered. There are several way to access probate court records, but the most expedient strategy is to contact the court directly.
The word "probate" comes from the Latin word "probare," meaning "to prove." In court, the authenticity of a last will and testament must be proven. When a person dies, inheritance laws, which vary from state to state and country to country, outline the necessary steps for the court to follow in settling an estate. In the United States, probate laws are handled under the jurisdiction of each state. Each country has its own system, and international records can also be obtained with some effort.
Over the centuries, probate laws have changed drastically. There are no consistent requirements that govern the types of documents, their availability, and the court's maintenance responsibilities. There are, however, usually a few general practices observed. Most courts will keep a record of the will, the names of administrators or executors, sales of property or assets, judgments, and property division among or between beneficiaries.
Before beginning the search for probate court records, it is important to gather as much information as possible on the person in question. Helpful statistics include full name, date of death, county or city of death, marriage information, and property address. While probate court records can provide a wealth of information on relatives, disposal of property and assets, and physical address, they can also be very sparse and offer little information, especially if the search is for probate court records that are several decades old.
The first and often simplest strategy is to conduct an online search. Unfortunately, many courthouses do not have probate court records available online. Online genealogy search services may offer some assistance, but are often accompanied with a high fee.
If a state or county does not provide access to probate documents online, the physical address information and email or phone contact information can be found at the court's website or through a phone directory. Most probate courts will be able to communicate with an individual via the telephone or email, and often will be able to mail copies of records for a small fee. In some instances, however, a court will only releases records to individuals who appear in person at the court to sign for them.