Frequently Asked Questions
about
Oglethorpe County Probate Records

 

What kind of Estate Records can I find online?
Have any of the will records been published?
Where can I look at the actual wills?
What if my ancestor didn't leave a will?

What's in the probate files?
Where can I look at the probate files?
Help!  My ancestor's will doesn't name any children!
Why was my ancestor written out of the will?
What else can I learn from probate records?

How can probate records help with slave research?


What kind of estate records can I find online?

Hundreds of wills and estate records have been submitted by researchers to the Oglethorpe County GAGenWeb Archives.  In addition, the Oglethorpe County Probate Index lists the names of over 2500 people whose estates were settled in Oglethorpe County during the 1790s-1960s.  For more information about the Probate Files, see below.


Have any of the will records been published?

Yes! "Oglethorpe County, Georgia: Abstracts of Wills, 1794-1903" by Fred W. McRee Jr. was published in 2002.  The book is available at the Oglethorpe County Library and other libraries, and may be borrowed through interlibrary loan.  It's also available for purchase through Historic Oglethorpe County.

 


Where can I look at the actual wills?

Wills can be viewed in the probate office at the Oglethorpe County Courthouse.  The following will books have been microfilmed and appear on two rolls of film.  The film is available at the Georgia Department of Archives and History in Atlanta, and can also
be borrowed through the LDS Family History Library system:

Will Book A... 1794 - 1807
Will Book B... 1807 - 1826
Will Book C... 1826 - 1834
Will Book D... 1835 - 1866
Will Book E... 1866 - 1903

For a small fee per page, copies of wills can be ordered from the Oglethorpe County Probate Court.  For current fees, contact the courthouse:

Oglethorpe County Clerk
P.O. Box 70
Lexington, GA 30648
(706) 743-5350


What if my ancestor didn't leave a will?

Not everyone wrote a will… but most people owned some kind of property when they died, and something had to be done with it.  In accordance with Georgia law, the estate of someone who died intestate (without a will) was divided equally between his/her legal heirs.  This process resulted in a lot of paperwork, and these documents can provide a wealth of information to researchers.  In fact, wills are only one part of the probate process ~ many different records were created during the settlement of an estate, whether there was a will or not.  These records were filed together in a Probate File
for each estate.


What's in the Probate Files?

Each file contains the original, unbound documents created during the settlement of the estate.  Some of the documents (wills, inventories, bonds) were copied into various books at the courthouse, and the original was placed in the probate file.  However, many probate files contain documents that were not recorded anywhere else.   Each file may include:

Wills
If a will was written, a copy was recorded into one of the Will Books at the courthouse, and the original was filed in the Probate File.  Sometimes the clerk made mistakes when copying a will into the will book, so it can be benefical to view the original document.

Letters of Administration
Folks who wrote a will usually appointed an executor/executrix to manage their affairs after their death.  In the absence of a will, it was up to the court to find someone to take on these duties.  An administrator (often an adult child or other relative) was appointed by the court to oversee the maintenance and distribution of the estate. The court issued Letters of Administration, granting the administrator the authority to take charge of the estate. The administrator was required to post a bond, assuring that he would perform his duties as required by law.

Guardianship Records
If minor children were involved, a guardian was appointed to look after their shares of the estate until they arrived at legal age. Children were often referred to as "orphans", even if the mother was still living.  It was usually a male relative who took guardianship of the child’s estate.  If both parents were dead, or the widow was unable to care for the child, the guardian would take charge of the child’s "person and property", becoming responsible for the child’s care and upbringing as well as managing his/her inheritance. Children over the age of 14 were allowed to select their own guardian. Guardians were required to post a bond and make annual reports of the child’s estate.  These records contain the child's name, the name of the deceased parent, and sometimes the child's age or other information.

Inventories and Sales
To determine the value of the estate, an inventory was made of the decedent's belongings and a value assigned to each item.  Appraisers went through the home and outbuildings room by room, listing slaves, livestock, farm equipment, furniture and household items such as books, kitchen knives, and quilts.  Inventories were extremely detailed, and can provide an interesting glimpse into an ancestor’s home life.  A sale was often held as a way to liquidate the estate and provide cash to distribute among the heirs or to pay off debts.  The sale record shows who purchased each item.

Annual Returns
Some estates were settled quickly, but the probate process could go on for several years – even decades – especially if there was a widow or minor children involved.  To insure that the estate was being properly administered, the executor or administrator  was required to present the court with a yearly accounting of the estates’ financial activity.  This included any payments made to the heirs... and here’s where it gets good!  As each heir received his legacy, or distributive share of the estate, he signed a receipt  which was filed with the annual returns.  These receipts often state the relationship of the heir to the decedent, and sometimes the heir's place of residence.  Thus, the annual returns may provide a complete list of children or grandchildren.  Other items found in the annual returns might include receipts for medical bills, burial expenses, ordinary living expenses for the surviving family, travel expenses, and records of income brought in to the estate through the lease of land or slaves, or the sale of surplus crops.  Once the estate was completely settled, the administrator or executor filed a Final Return and requested Letters of Dismissal, relinquishing his duties to the estate.

 


Where can I look at the Pobate Files?

The original probate files are now housed at the Georgia Department of Archives and History in Atlanta (GDAH).  They have also been microfilmed, and appear alphabetically on 53 rolls of film.  Due to the fragile nature of the documents, visitors are requested to view the microfilm first, and request the actual file only if the microfilm is unreadable.  Photocopies of the files may be ordered from GDAH.   To obtain the current fee schedule, contact GDHA or visit their Reference Services web site.

Georgia Department of Archives and History
330 Capitol Avenue SE
Atlanta, GA  30334
Telephone: (404) 656-3493

The files can also be ordered on microfilm through the LDS Family History Library system. Since the files appear alphabetically, researchers may be able to study the estate records of several family members on the same film.  To locate a Family History Center near you, contact your local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or visit their website at www.familysearch.org and click on "Family History Library."


Help!  My ancestor's will doesn't name any children!

Every researcher hopes to find a long, detailed will, naming every child and grandchild and clearly spelling out the relationships.  But some of our ancestors liked to keep things short and sweet, leaving everything to "my beloved wife and children," without naming any names.  Not to despair.  The same strategy can be used as with ancestors who left no will.  By studying the annual returns and guardianship records (see above), it is often possible to uncover a complete list of heirs. 


Why was my ancestor "written out" of the will?

Some parents gave a detailed list of bequests to certain children, while other children are markedly absent from the will, or received only a token inheritance.   This didn't necessarily mean that there had been a family squabble or that a child had been "disowned."  Some children may have already received gifts of land or property, or financial assistance for schooling or to pay off debts.  Married daughters may have received a dower, while their unmarried sisters had not.  In these cases, the will was the parent's way of making all the children equal. 


What else can I learn from probate records?

The wording of wills and the details in other estate records can provide many helpful clues for researchers.  Some of the hints to explore include...

Cows and Calves
Daughters who were given a Cow and Calf, or a Bed and Bedstead, were often unmarried, as these were the typical gifts given to daughters at marriage.

Sons and Daughters
Children were usually listed in wills from oldest to youngest.  Alternatively, sons were listed first in birth order, followed by daughters.  This wasn't always the case, but when combined with other records, it can be helpful in determining the ages of the children.

Deceased Children
When a child had predeceased the parent, the grandchildren usually inherited their parent's share of the estate.  Some wills clearly state the relationships ("My grandson Thomas Smith, son of my deceased daughter Mary Smith").  Other wills simply list the grandchildren right along with the children, without stating the relationship... and this can lead the researcher to mistakenly assume that a grandchild is another child.  Studying the annual returns or guardianship records can sometimes clarify these relationships.

My Distributive Share
When an heir received his share of the estate, he signed a receipt showing the amount he was paid.  Sometimes, the receipt includes a phrase that indicates the heir's relationship to the decedent, as when John Smith received $100 "as my distributive share of my father's estate."  But sometimes no relationship is noted, as when Jane Brown was paid $100 "as a legatee of the estate of Thomas Brown."  Was Jane a daughter, or a grandchild?  By comparing the amounts received by all the heirs, it can be possible to tell children from grandchildren.  For example... if Sarah, Stephen, Samuel and Syntha each received $100, while Mary, Matthew and Martha each got $33.33, we can conclude that Mary, Matthew and Martha are the three children of a deceased child and are splitting their parent's share of the estate.

Coming of Age
Minor children could not own property, and thus did not receive their inheritance until they reached legal age (21) or married (in the case of daughters who married under 21).  By studying the annual returns, the researcher can note when a child first received his legacy, implying that he had celebrated his 21st birthday.  In the case of a minor daughter who married, her husband could claim her share of the estate on her behalf.

Natural Life or Widowhood
Many husbands left their estates to their wives during her "natural life or widowhood", directing that the property be sold or divided among the children after the wife died or remarried.  The annual returns can reveal when such a sale or division occurred, suggesting a death or marriage date for the widow.  If a widow remarried, she might receive a "child's share" of the estate, or perhaps nothing at all if her late husband so directed.  Incidentally, this was not a jealous husband's way of insuring his wife's fidelity beyond the grave... it was a way of protecting his children's interest in the estate.  In a time when women generally did not own property, her estate was under the complete control of her husband.  Should a future husband be financially irresponsible (or just not a nice guy), the estate could be squandered, leaving nothing for the children.

Land out of Town
Sometimes a record will note that the decedent owned land in another location.  This might indicate a previous residence; or it might be a lot that was won through the one of the Georgia Land Lotteries; or land that was inherited from a relative who lived in that area.  This suggests other records for the researcher to explore.

Friends and Relatives
Wives and children aren't the only people whose names appear in wills.  Wills were signed by witnesses, who were often relatives (but keep in mind that heirs could not be witnesses).  In describing real estate, the testator might mention adjacent landowners, who are also prime suspects as possible kin.  People who served as executors, administrators, securities or appraisers were often relatives, as were the many of the folks who purchased items from the estate.  Every name that appears in a will or estate record should be explored for possible clues.


How can probate records help with slave research?

As part of a slaveowner's estate, slaves were either distributed among the heirs or sold to liquidate the estate.  Records were created in either situation.   By studying the various probate records, it can be possible to trace a slave family through several generations of slaveowners.  The first step is to determine who owned the slave before emancipation.  Many (but certainly not all) slaves adopted their slaveowner's surname, so this is one place to start.  It may be necessary to examine the estate records of every person with that surname.  Another avenue is to study the 1870 census, noting the former slave's neighbors; many slaves stayed on to work for the same family after the Civil War.  Once the slave owning family has been determined, a study of their ancestry and collateral relatives can be helpful in locating previous slaveowners.

Wills
Some slaveowners listed every slave in their will, noting which heir was to inherit each slave.  Others gave specific instructions regarding a particular slave, although they may have owned other slaves who weren't named.  Many slaveowners didn't mention slaves in their wills, and some didn't leave a will at all.  Whatever the case, wills are only one part of the probate procedure.  Other records exist that can provide a great deal of information regarding slaves.

Inventories
Since slaves were often the most valuable part of a slaveowner's estate, they were usually listed first on estate inventories and appraisements.  Each slave was listed by name, along with his/her value.  Some inventories included each slave's age.  Infants and young children were usually listed together with their mother. 

Sales and Divisions
If a sale was held, the record of sale will note who purchased each slave, and the amount they paid.  If the slaves were to be divided equally among the slaveowner's heirs, they were placed in "lots" of equal value and each heir would draw a lot.   When dividing the slaves into lots, consideration was often (but not always) given to keeping family members together, especially mothers and young children.  These lots and draws were recorded and filed with the other probate records.

Annual Returns
After a slaveowner's death, there may have been several years before a division was made of his property.  In the meantime, slaves were sometimes leased out to neighbors or relatives for a specific job.  Since this brought income into the estate, it was recorded in the annual returns.  These records may reveal a slave's special skill or talent, such as carpentry or blacksmithing.

 

 

 

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Copyright 2003 by Jeanne Arguelles

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