Court records cover a wide range of topics, including land ownership, adoption, taxes, and naturalization. This topic tells you how court records may help you in your research. To get more information about what types of court records exist and where to find them, select any of the topics listed at the end of this description.
Since court records cover such a wide variety of subjects, they can help you in many different ways. For example, they may help you locate ancestors' residences, determine occupations, find financial information, establish citizenship status, or clarify relationships between people. It all depends on the type of court records that your ancestors" names appear in.
Court records probably are not the first place that you will want to look for genealogical information because there are so many other ways that you can locate the information that you need. However, if you find that your other resources have failed you, court records may be valuable in your research.
Types of court records
There are four types of court records that are most likely to have information relevant to your genealogical research. Each of these records is described below.
Adoption Records: An adoption record contains the names of the adopted child or children, the natural parents, and the adopting parents. Although these records have good information, they can only be opened by a court order for "good cause shown," and often only by the adopted individual. Genealogical research information is usually not "good cause."
Divorce Records: A divorce record normally lists the names of both spouses, the names of their children (if any), the date and location of the marriage, the date of birth of both spouses, the country or state of these births, and the grounds for the divorce. To get a copy of a divorce record, write to the court in the county where the divorce was granted. Include the names of the two spouses, the approximate year of the divorce, and your relationship to the couple, in your letter.
Naturalization Records: Each record usually contains a petition for citizenship with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), a petition with the local court clerk, and a Certificate of Naturalization. The National Archives has many of these records. You can also get naturalization records from the INS. Write to your local INS office and ask for a copy of the form G-641, Application for Verification of Information from Immigration and Naturalization Service Records. Records of early naturalizations will be in the records of the courts where the naturalization took place.
Probate records: Probate records can be an excellent source of genealogical information. Probate records are created at the time of an individual's death, and are meant to establish the legality of a will. In probate records, you can find the will, which will tell you what types of assets the deceased had. They also often list the names of survivors, and their relationship to the deceased.
If one of your ancestors was involved in a court case, you may also find the following types of records:
Case Files: A case file contains evidence, testimony, correspondence, depositions, and other documents relevant to the case. Finding a case file normally requires obtaining a case file number from the index, docket, or minutes of the case.
Dockets: After a judiciary agrees to hear a case, it is placed on the court docket until the time of the trial. Typically, an entry on the docket includes the plaintiff and defendant for each case, the date of the case's hearing, the case's file number, and the titles of all documents relevant to the case. Dockets are normally held in chronological order and are typically divided by category, such as criminal, civil, or equity.
Minutes: The minutes, compiled by the clerk of the court, briefly record all actions of the court on a single day. Particularly useful when indexes and dockets cannot be located, they usually list the plaintiff and defendant in the case and state the action taken. They are normally organized chronologically but are rarely indexed.
Orders: The recorded orders of the court can be found in almost every jurisdiction. They generally present a concise summary of the case and state the judgment to be carried out. It is worth noting that appointments of guardians, memorials, naturalizations, and re-recordings of deeds, especially before this century, are often recorded in the order books. In addition, a variety of other administrative data from the locality was also recorded frequently.
How to find court records
To obtain court records, you would want to look in the following places:
State and Local Courts: In the United States, every state has a system of local courts, as well as a state supreme court. In general, the local courts are the best place to begin a genealogical search. To get information about your ancestors in court records, you should either write with a specific question to the court clerk in the area where your ancestors lived, or visit the court in person.
Federal Courts: In addition to the state and local courts, there are currently 89 federal district courts, U.S. circuit courts of appeals, and, the United States Supreme Court. Federal courts deal with cases where federal laws or the provisions of the Constitution have been violated. Most of these are criminal cases. Again, to get information about your ancestors in court records, you should either write with a specific question to the court clerk in the area where your ancestors lived, or visit the court in person.