What are Probate Records?

C. Mitchell
C. Mitchell
Businessman with a briefcase
Businessman with a briefcase

Probate records are court records associated with will interpretation and asset distribution after someone’s death. The word “probate” is from the Latin verb “to prove,” and probate records serve the purpose of proving what the deceased wanted done with his or her property. Most of the time, probate is handled by a court. The court can authenticate the validity of wills and other documents, and oversees the distribution of assets. It also handles title changes for property and bank accounts. All records associated with the probate process become probate records, which are filed with the court and are publicly searchable.

Not all jurisdictions have a specific probate court, but all have courts of law of some variety that handle probate matters. Probate laws vary by jurisdiction. Each country and, in the United States, each state, has its own set of laws and requirements for when adjudicated probate is necessary. Not all deaths require probate, but most do.

Probate is usually required when there is any transfer of title to property like cars, houses, or bank accounts. A designation on a will that “John gets my bank account” is not usually enough for a bank to hand over an account’s contents. A court order is usually required. The probate process is the means of getting that order.

The probate process is simplest for asset distributions that are not contested. In these cases, the court will interpret the will, distribute the assets, issue title change orders, name estate administrators if need be, and close the matter. Simple or not, however, the court still must maintain a permanent file of every document admitted, and must include copies of all orders. Those copies become the probate record of the case. Courts handling probate matters will usually admit as many relevant documents as exist.

Probate records get more interesting the more complicated the distribution. When families are feuding, or when property ownership is in doubt, a probate court must consider a wide array of evidence in order to settle the estate. Courts in these cases will often consider all copies and iterations of wills, letters of wishes, land titles, and sometimes even personal testimony. The decisions of a probate court can almost always be appealed to higher courts for further review.

In almost all jurisdictions, the public can freely access probate records. Most courts keep exhaustive records of probate documents spanning generations. Genealogical researchers frequently consult probate records in order to learn more about relatives and family history. Most of the time, probate records are kept in local courthouses, usually in the county or jurisdiction where the deceased lived his life — not necessarily in the place where he died.

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