To deal with civil legal matters, states sometimes separate courts into different categories to avoid clogging up the legal system and provide an indication of what cases need to be filed in what particular court. Family court is one of the most well known categories, as is probate court. Probate courts are designed to exclusively handle probate matters, estate administration, and any related issues that might arise in those matters.
Some jurisdictions have their own separate probate court system. However, many states combine a few areas of the law under an umbrella court, usually a District Court or Circuit Court. Just like most legal matters, many probate and estate administration proceedings are a matter of public record, and can therefore be accessed if you know where to look. Here is a brief look at probate records, where to find them, and how they can be helpful in certain legal matters.
Every jurisdiction varies on the type of information and the type of detail you can find in their records. There is also a technology element to consider, as bigger counties with larger budgets and a lot more records to keep will have a lot of their files digitized. Smaller counties might still keep largely paper records that you need someone to find in person. And the older the case, the less likely you are to find detailed records on something. Today, courts have sophisticated filing and record keeping systems, but the further back in time you go, the less likely you are to find complete records and useful details.
So what can you find when searching probate records? The most obvious answer is wills and codicils (which are will amendments) filed when someone’s family is ready to distribute the deceased’s property to their named heirs. In conjunction with wills, petitions for appointing executors, lists of legal heirs, and an inventory of all the property and debts attached to the deceased’s name upon their death.
In the event that there is no valid will to execute, the probate court will then oversee various issues, including: determining the deceased’s legal heirs, naming all their property, and the process of distribution and paying debts through the process of intestacy. All of this is part of a probate court’s official duties. All of the necessary paperwork is filed is filed into public record. Related documents like real estate deeds, stocks, bonds, and other property are often included in the record as well.
Probate records can help you settle a variety of legal problems regarding heirship issues, ownership of property, and will validity questions. Many disputes over who is entitled to inherit a specific piece of property can be solved by looking through probate and real property records to identify legal transfers and proper ownership. Whether there is a conflict between family members or between an outside party and the family, finding the right probate records is usually the most efficient way to solve disputes.
Finding the right probate documents can also help point you in the right direction when searching for legal heirs and property records outside of a dispute situation. Sometimes family members lose touch and several generations can pass without the need to access such information. However, if an estate issue comes up in the future and you have no idea where to begin, a good place to start is with probate records.
As stated above, every state does things differently when it comes to probate courts and how to access their public records. A good place to start is an internet search asking for the probate/estate records of the state where the legal issue is. These states have government-operated websites to give you general information and details on how to help you narrow your search, usually by county.
Many counties now have their own websites with digitized real property and estate administration records that the public can access. Sometimes you need to formally request the information and pay a small fee. With older records and smaller states, you may need to call the county appraiser or clerk to look up the information in their physical records, as some places are still not fully digitized yet.
Most jurisdictions make an effort to make such records easily available to the general public. However, the fact is that the amount of data you need to sift through and navigation bureaucratic channels can become overwhelming very quickly.
If you find yourself in a situation like this, it is a good idea to seek the services of an estate planning and probate attorney to help you navigate what can be a tedious process. They will not only know where to look, but they can usually find the information you are looking for in a much more time-efficient manner.