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Overheard in GenForum: Looking for Wills
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

April 13, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I'm at a point where I'd like to start finding the wills of my deceased family members and not sure where to start, in the county they lived, or died? Thank you for anything you can provide. -- Sue

A: Will records can indeed be a wonderful resource for genealogists. They often include the names and relationships of family members.

While we have shortened the term to "will" what we actually see is the Will and Testament. The will portion was the distribution of the real estate and all that was on it including buildings, trees and water rights. The testament portion was the distribution of the personal property, such as money, furniture, animals, and owed debts.

Will records can indeed be a wonderful resource for genealogists.

Testate vs. Intestate

Not everyone who died left a will. Those who did leave a last will and testament are said to have died testate. Those who died without leaving a will are said to have died intestate. We always wish for our ancestor to leave a will, but sometimes the records created from someone who died intestate can be just as useful.

There are many types of records that are generated to distribute the estate of a person. Some of the records are specific to a testate estate, such as the will.

Different Types of Wills

While we tend to think of a will as a standard document, there are actually three different types of wills.

  • Attested will - is the most common will that we find in our research. It is the one that is prepared in writing and then signed by witnesses. Those witnesses then go to court to attest to the validity of the will.
  • Holographic will - is hand written by the individual writing the will. It cannot have anyone else's writing on it, or it will be deemed invalid. There are no witnesses to this will.
  • Nuncupative will - is a dictated will. These are usually given by the individual on their deathbed. The witnesses then put the will down on paper and take it to the court after the individual has passed away.

Only the attested will is valid in all of the United States. The other two have been found to be invalid in some jurisdictions.

Where Can You Find Them

Most of the time the first place that we begin to search for a will is in the place where the person died. And for most of our ancestors this would be the place to look. However, there are instances, especially in the more current times, when an individual may have died while away from his legal residence. In such a case the probating of his estate will be found where his legal residence was.

Wills are just one of the records found in the probating of an estate. In fact, what you want to look for are the probate records, not just the will. It is possible that your ancestors are among the many who died intestate. Among those records, you will find:

  • Inventories
  • Receipts
  • Bonds
  • Letters of administration
  • Guardianship appointments
  • Sales of properties

It is also important to remember that not all states have the probate records on the county level. While this is generally the most common jurisdiction, there are some states that have established probate districts. And those districts may or may not coincide with the boundaries of the counties.

In Conclusion

Wills can be an excellent source of information. Remember though that they are not the only records generated by the death of an individual. It is important to read up on the state in which your ancestor died to determine if you are looking at the county or at a probate district as the holder of the records.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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