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From the Green Valley News, Sunday 6 August 2006, page A8

Genealogy Today, by Betty Malesky

What if there is No Will?

Beginning genealogists are always told to start with the present and work back through each generation. The most recent records for an individual are those created upon his death. Various types of death records hold many clues you can use to proceed further in your research.

The old cliché, where thereís a will thereís a way, is equally appropriate in genealogy. But what if there is no will? Many of our ancestors died intestate, meaning without a will. If a person who owned property died intestate, the county court appointed someone to administer his estate. Through the auspices of the court, the administrator advertised for creditors, inventoried assets, identified heirs, settled the estate, and left priceless records for future genealogists.

My ancestor Thomas Sheridan died in 1850 in New Jersey. I was excited to find his will believing his children would be identified. Reading it dashed my hopes, as he mentioned only his wife and an errant son by name. Thomasí unmarried brother John however, died intestate in 1855. The final settlement of his estate named Thomasís eleven children and a sister Charlotteís three children. Not only are they named, but the female heirsí husbands are named as well. No other record links the children to their parents.

In the U.S., local laws regulated death registration. The information recorded depended on the local jurisdiction. Passage of a federal law in 1906 required submission of a death certificate to the appropriate state office where death occurred. Besides information pertinent to the death, names and birthplaces of the deceasedís parents are recorded as well as the informantís name.

The grave marker normally provides the death date and often the birth date or the deceasedís age to use in calculating a birth date. Older markers may show a birthplace or a womanís maiden name. Active cemeteries usually have plot maps and indexes to all burials on their grounds. Records of inactive cemeteries may reside in a local historical society or library. Public cemetery records are likely found in a town or city hall sextonís office. Copy every record with the same surname as family connections may be discovered later in your research.

If a familyís religion is known, check church records in their locality. The church burial register and/or membership records may indicate a date of death. Prior to the 20th century many churches had adjacent cemeteries where members could be buried.

Since the mid 1850s especially in larger cities, funeral home records are often overlooked as a resource. To identify the appropriate business, look for funeral cards in scrapbooks, photo albums, and correspondence. Directories to funeral homes nationwide are available in larger libraries. If a funeral home was sold or ceased doing business, its records may have been deposited with a local society or library. Funeral homes are not required to share information in their records but most will respond to a request from a descendant.

Obituaries and death notices contain family information although prior to 1900 the notice may give only a name and date of death. Small town newspapers are more apt to print family data and a biography of the deceased. For a death after 1963, donít forget to check the Social Security Death Index at Once youíve found the records generated when your ancestor died youíre well on the way to learning more about your family.

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