What probate records are and how to determine where they may have been recorded
A probate is a court proceeding to supervise the orderly transfer of assets from a deceased person to his or her heirs. Probate records are extremely valuable in genealogy research because they commonly contain information about more than one generation of family relationships. Normally in all probates the administrator or executor (administratrix or executrix) of the estate is required by the probate laws to make an inventory of the assets of the estate. These probate inventories can become an open window into the lives of your ancestors' families.
The court system has always had especially established courts or divisions of the court system to handle probate matters. In the United States these courts are usually based in the county court system. Depending on the size of the case load in a county the probate court may or may not be an entirely separate division. In smaller counties probate matters are mixed in with everything else. In larger, more populous counties, probate actions may be handled by an entirely separately maintained court division. The following is a quote from the FamilySearch Research Wiki that should give you the idea that your first task in researching probate matters is to figure out which court or other entity has the records:
Probate is a function of state governments. Therefore, the laws and resulting records vary from state to state and change over time. Probate records for many states can be found at the local county courthouse. The particular office of jurisdiction might be that of the Probate Court, the Equity Court, the Register of Wills, the County Clerk, the Circuit Court, or others. Some colonial records were kept by the town or the colony. See the wiki pages of each state for more information on pre-statehood, historical, and current probate records and jurisdictions.
The U.S. government had jurisdiction over the probate records for Native American or Indian tribes. The Bureau of Indians Affairs had agencies responsible for regional groups of recognized tribes. The Field Office of the appropriate tribal agency kept any probate records. These are found at the National Archives branch designated to archive the records for the pertinent agency.
Here are what I consider to be the steps in discovering probate documents:
Determine the date of death of an ancestor.
Determine the exact place of death. It may be necessary to do extensive research into other types of records in order to determine where the person died.
Investigate and determine which court or other entity handled probate matters at the time and place of the ancestor's death.
Determine where the surviving records are stored and whether or not the records are available online in digitized format. This may involve a search in several online databases.
Search the court or other entity records both before and for a time period after the death of the ancestor. You may find probate actions filed years after the date of death.
Most researchers think that by searching for a year or so around the death date, they have determined whether or not there was a probate. I suggest that the proper way to solve both the existence of a probate action and the location of the court is to examine land and property records. If a deceased person's property passed through a probate action, it is very likely that there was a deed recorded transferring property to the heirs or to a creditor. If the data is found with the designation of administrator's deed, executor's deed or a deed of distribution, then you are put on notice that there was a probate action filed.
In discussing this topic, the question is commonly raised as to whether a very poor individual was required to have a probate action. The answer is that whether or not a probate was required depends on the time of the event and the jurisdiction involved. Early in the history of the Americas, it was not unusual to find a probate action for someone with very little personal property. More recently, the states have established thresholds for the filing of a probate action. Very poor people generally do not have to file probate actions.
From probate records you can sometimes see things including the variety of the possessions of your ancestor and his family. You may also get an understanding of the size and configuration of his house.
You can even form an opinion about how rich or poor he was. Even if you can't find your own ancestor's probate file, other files from the same town and time period will give you a good idea of the economic circumstances of the times and your ancestor's surroundings.
The following videos can give you more information about using probate records.
Probate Records, Part 1, In the Beginning
Probate Records, Part 2, Wills
Probate Records, Part 3, The Wording of Wills
Probate Records, Part 4, What is Probate?
Probate Records, Part 5, What are Probate Procedures?
Probate Records, Part 6, Finding Probate Documents
Probate Records, Part 7, Example of a Probate File
Probate Records, Part 8, Trusts
Probate Records, Part 9, What Happens When Probate Gets Complicated