When looking for probate records, we know to go looking at the courthouse to find the wills of our ancestors. More frequently we use microfilm of these records at the archives or through the Family History Library. Care must be taken when using these records, for there will often be multiple copies. To understand why, we need to take a look at the process.
People who are ready to arrange for the disposition of their property after their death prepare their will and testament. Originally, these were two different documents. The will was used to handle real property (land, buildings, etc). The testament dealt with personal property, sometimes called “moveables” (clothing, furniture, tools, etc.). Over time these merged into a single document.
Since so many people were illiterate, they would often employ a scribe to write their wishes down. In addition to people who earned their living as scribes, attorneys and members of the clergy often served in this roll for the last will and testament. Once it was written, it would be signed by the testator in the presence of witnesses.
Once the testator died, it was the responsibility of the executor appointed by the probate court to present the will to the court, and to execute the wishes of the testator. The witnesses would appear in court to testify to the signing.
The court clerk would then record the will into ledger books kept as an official record. The original will would be kept in a docket folder along with all of the other original paperwork as the estate continued its way through the probate process. These papers are sometimes referred to as estate files.
When records were microfilmed, quite often it was the books that were filmed instead of the papers. Books were easy to manipulate. The docket folders/estate papers required a lot of manual labor. Each file needed to be opened, and all of the papers inside unfolded and flattened for filming. This was very labor intensive. Books could be placed on the stand and pages easily turned. In some localities, both were filmed; in others, only one. Be aware that if only one was filmed, the other may still exist in the original and be able to substitute illegible or damaged pages.
Another thing to remember is that people might prepare more than one will and testament over time. This is why the one filed with the court is called the “last will and testament.” The one prepared last (i.e., closest to the date of death) supersedes all previous ones. But what happens to the earlier wills? Sometimes they survive, in an individual’s papers or in the papers of an attorney. These may have made their way into archives and libraries, so look for them in manuscript collections.
In addition to these earlier wills, sometimes multiple copies of a will might be prepared for one reason or another. These duplicates also appear in manuscript collections. In addition, for one reason or another wills sometimes went unrecorded. Some courthouses have collections of these documents and sometimes you can find them in libraries and archives.