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Overheard in GenForum: Wills/probate -- Indiana, Illinois?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.

November 30, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: How does one obtain probate, wills, and other estate records in Illinois and Indiana? Is there a specific court or office that typically handles this in each county, or should one just call the county clerk's office and ask for their advice? -- cecinit

A: The best way to get positive results when contacting a county courthouse is to be prepared. To be prepared, it is necessary to do a little reading up on the state in question and the record availability.

There are many books that will introduce you to the records and let you know where you are likely to find them. For most of the United States, records such as wills and probate are found on the county level.

Positive research is related to the preparation undertaken ahead of time.

The Records

Probate records, wills and estate records for Illinois and Indiana are kept on the county level. What this means to a researcher is that there are many variables that will affect the record availability.

The researcher must first determine what county was in existence at the time of the records wanted. Many researchers do not understand this premise. As the areas grew, counties were split off from those already in existence. However, when the new counties were created, they did not take with them records already in existence.

As each new county was created, it began to record its records from that date. To researchers, this means that while their ancestors did not move, the records may exist in more than one county.

Of course, in order to determine when a county was created, the researcher needs to use one of the volumes available that supply this type of information.

Where to Look

While there may be other volumes and resources that supply the same information, genealogists often rely on one of the three listed here when determining the date of creation of a county.

While I use all three of these, I suggest that each researcher get at least one of them to refer to as their research progresses.

  • Bentley, Elizabeth Petty. County Courthouse Book. 2nd Edition. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc., 1995.
  • The Handy Book for Genealogists. 9th Edition. Logan, Utah: The Everton Publishers, Inc., 1999.
  • Eichholz, Alice, editor. Ancestry's Red Book, American State, County & Town Sources. Revised edition. Salt Lake City, Utah: 1992.

Contacting the County

Once the researcher has determined what county exists, and that the records for that county do go back far enough, the next step is to check the Family History Library Catalog. I suggest this before contacting the county as many of these records have been microfilmed. Using the microfilm helps to preserve the original records as well as cutting down on the work load of the county clerks.

If the records needed are not available through the Family History Library, then writing a letter to the county clerk is the next available option. The information included in the letter is important. It is essential not to let the letter ramble. Remember that county clerks are busy with many requests. If the letter is to the point, then it is much easier to respond with the requested information.

Open the letter by stating the reason for writing. Request the will or probate packet. Be sure to include all the pertinent information known for that record. In some instances the Family History Library may have the index, but not the actual records. If you have used an index, then be sure to include the information from the index. Include your complete address on the letter and include a check. For probate packets or multi-page documents, I suggest including a check for $15 or $20 at the least.

In Conclusion

While it is probable that you will be contacting the county courthouse for the wills or probate records, I encourage all researchers to do some leg work and preparation before writing that letter. Through this preparation, any letter that you do need to write will include all pertinent information for the county clerk to be able to fulfill the request.

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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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