Posted by Juliana Szucs on September 2, 2015 in Website

What if I told you there was a record that could walk you through your ancestor’s house and tell you what he (or she) owned, room by room? What kind of tools he used in his business? How much livestock he owned? Would you be interested?

Or what if there was a record that told you who your ancestor trusted to look after his or her family’s welfare after his death? Or that not only spelled out relationships, but gave you unique insights into the family dynamics?

And if you were researching your African American slave roots, would you like to see a record that actually named your ancestor, rather than listing them as a tally on a slave schedule?

This week Ancestry launched a collection that holds the potential to do just that for you. With probates (and more) from 50 U.S. states, here is a sampling of some of the types of things you might find for your ancestors.

Was Your Ancestor a Member of the $1 Club?

Sometimes our ancestors expressed their displeasure with the behavior of their descendants through their wills. Paul Revere’s last will and testament states, “It is my will that my Grandson Frank who now writes his name Francis Lincoln, eldest son of my late daughter Deborah, shall have no part of my estate except one dollar which is here bequeathed to him.”


To add insult to injury, he gave Frank’s $500 share to his brother Frederick. Ouch.

George Pullman, the famous industrialist who revolutionized rail travel with his Pullman sleeper cars,  was a little more generous with his twin sons, although he was clear in his will that he didn’t approve of their behavior. “In as much as neither of my sons has developed such a sence [sic] of responsibility as in my judgment is requisite for the wise use of large properties and considerable sums of money, I am painfully compelled as I have explicitly stated to them to limit my testamentary provisions for their benefit to trust producing only such income as I deem reasonable for their support.”

George Pullman

He ended up giving them $3,000 per year, although the snub didn’t curb their behavior. Their dissipated and philandering lifestyles landed them in the newspapers on a number of occasions, and, sadly, they both died within a decade of their father when they were only in their 20s.

Pullman also tipped his hand when it came to what was important to him. He left his daughter Florence “the island in the river St. Lawrence, now owned by me and known as one of ‘The Thousand Islands,’ on which I have constructed an edifice known as Castle Rest, intended for the summer home of my mother and used by her as such to the time of her death, together with all the structures on said Island … and the furniture and pictures and other articles in said Castle Rest including the portrait of my mother painted by Eastman Johnson. It is my special wish that my said daughter shall each year keep open said island and Castle Rest from not later than the twenty-sixth day of July, which was my father’s birthday, until after the fourteenth day of August, which was my mother’s birthday for the accomodation [sic] and enjoyment of all the descendants of my parents who may wish to visit and remain at said Castle Rest for the period during which it is so open or for any shorter time within said period.”

A Tour of the Household in Inventories

Inventories can give us a revealing look at our ancestor’s lifestyles. This 1850 inventory from the estate of William Dezendorf of Kings County, New York, lists his possessions room by room. The description of the front parlor offer a cozy look into his home.



Enslaved African Americans

Because slaves were viewed as personal property, you may find your enslaved African American ancestors named in someone’s will or estate inventory. This inventory for the estate of Timothy Hopkins of Camden County, Georgia, that was submitted on 11 September 1833 lists the slaves and appears to have them broken down by family group. You can see that most groupings on the page are headed by a male and the values are consistent with values placed on slaves, with young men the highest, then women and children.

Inventory of slaves

Search for Your Ancestor’s FAN Club

While only the testator is indexed in this collection, there is much more to be found. Your ancestor may be mentioned in the estates of his or her FAN Club (friends, associates, neighbors) in accountings, in records of estate sales, as witnesses, or even as administrators or executors.

Search Tips

  • While estate files can include names of witnesses, heirs, and other associates, only the name of the testator has been indexed.
  • While there is a field to include a death date and place in the search form, keep in mind that some of the records may not list a date or place of death. And for some of the records, Ancestry has inferred the death date and place based on the probate location. For the death location it is only inferred to the state level, so specifying a particular county, and then choosing Exact (or Exact/Adjacent) will turn up no results. In addition, the date of a court record (for example, an accounting) may be years after the original probate.
  • Use the Any Event field to enter a more precise probate location and date. That said, keep in mind that there may be probates in any location where the testator had property, so don’t skip hits because the location doesn’t match exactly, particularly if the person was wealthy and may have had property in other jurisdictions.
  • Once you’re through examining a probate packet, you can return to the main search form for that state by clicking on the title in the gray bar above the image.
  • The probate process can go on for many years, depending on the estate and provisions in the will, so be flexible with dates.
  • In jurisdictions where records were parsed out into different record groups, as opposed to bundled into one probate packet, there may be more than one record for your ancestor, so be sure to look at all the possible references to your ancestor in the search results.

You never know what you’ll find in this rich collection, so dive right in and start digging in these records that are pure gold in terms of genealogical details and insights. Find out what mattered to your ancestors—and who mattered to your ancestors.

Search the new probate collection on Ancestry.

Download a free guide to the collection.

To learn more about Probates, check out The Legal Genealogist, Judy Russell’s new Ancestry Academy class on The Records of Death: Using Probates in Family History (premium class, requires Ancestry Academy subscription or an Ancestry All Access membership).


Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for for more than 20 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program.


  1. Teressa

    So this is how it is … convert to the NEW Ancestry, or lose the ability to use your account to its fullest. Disappointing, Ancestry. Disappointing.

    • Juliana Szucs

      Thank you for reaching out about this. The new Wills and Probates collection requires a different type of navigation that is only available in the new Ancestry. This will provide you with an upgraded viewing experience that you would not be able to achieve on the old site.

  2. Nice. Having an index to these documents will be very helpful. On first glance, there appears to be heavy overlap with the content on Is this correct? Is it a subset? Or is there more than what’s on

  3. Denise

    Wholeheartedly agreed with Teressa; this looks an awful lot like coercion to me. Even if this search MIGHT be useful I still refuse to use the new DREADFUL site; just not worth it, and believe me, I gave it a chance and was extremely relieved when I realized I could go back to the classic site (which I had never intentionally left but was switched from old to new by ancestry without my knowledge or consent). All the more reason to consider canceling one’s subscription. I have never seen a company so oblivious to its customers and their overwhelmingly negative feedback; refuse to listen to them at your peril. Classic case of trying to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

  4. Coercion, Denise? Software as a service means the service will change, mostly for the good, but there will always be features lost here or there that you valued, or design changes that you don’t like.

    If you want to have a consistent, never changing experience, I strongly recommend you purchase a license to desktop software, and search for sources independently.

    I can also assure you that ancestry is considered your feedback on comments, calls/emails to customer support, and (most important) telemetry showing site usage for all users. Changing software isn’t just switching on thing here or there. It’s complex, the interdependencies are mind-boggling, and you just can’t turn on a dime.

    Anyway, the new image viewer Juliana is pointing out is pretty cool. And it’s not something you can just componentize.

  5. glen_Swartz

    I’ve not taken the time to examine this in detail, but will express a couple issues to you regarding the Ancestry database.
    — why do I receive a consistent error message that probate (and will proved, which I use interchangeably) is after the date of death?
    — why do I need to record Legatee as a custom event? i.e., the children will be the legatee’s of their father’s will.
    — I’ll rummage around here and see if you have the wills and probate records I’ve already found in the courthouses.

  6. Glen, yeah, that error message warning that probate is after death is annoying. I’m guessing that all the events generate the same error message if listed after death. Would be nice to have a fix on that as well, though I think I’d prioritize that lower than the circle profile picture thingie. 🙂

  7. glen_Swartz

    Mike is absolutely correct and hit the nail on the head. is all about Telemetry/hits/links, i.e. marketing. The problem is they still haven’t figured out how to determine the reliability and accuracy of any of the hits, just the number of hits and links.
    So, if you give a room full of morons a smartphone just happy clicking away, does that mean they are more intelligent, or are they just happy clicking “leafs”?
    Digging deep into statistical analysis, over time the correct answer should evolve, but Ancestry usually make a change before that point.
    I receive periodic emails from people that I’m making a difference, and they have now made their tree private to prevent others from copying their mistakes.
    Further, regarding changes made by Ancestry, I’d argue that the changes they have made consistently result in the loss of information, albeit, it may not have topped the number of hits they recorded from the happy clickers.

  8. glen_Swartz

    This problem (trying to do it with a “smartphone”) is not unique to Ancestry, but is problematic throughout every entity (commercial or government, even DOD and HLS) deluding it’s self into the belief that the number of hits is the answer.

  9. glen_Swartz

    Mike, interesting; You are correct, I get the same error message for obituaries (which is also a custom event). The preceding are actual, factual events and dates. The circle picture thing I could not give two hoots about, that’s nothing but a stylistic preference and subject to revision every time they make a change. Dates and events do not change.

  10. Monika

    Your mention of “digging deep into statistical analysis” reminded me of something I read in a Langenscheidt Kalendar: A biologist, a chemist, and a statistician are out on a hunting trip when they spot a deer. The biologist takes aim first but misses by five feet to the left; the chemist takes the second shot and misses by five feet to the right. Then the statistician shouts “Yes, we got him!”

  11. Hits != telemetry. It’s about analyzing and segmenting how people use a service, not just which pages they hit the most frequently.

    Re obituary/error message, cool! I was just guessing, but it’s nice to know my guess was correct. 🙂

  12. Elhura

    First of all, a comment about the “Member Connect Activity” that is appearing on my Ancestry home page. I don’t recall all the member alterations to records being included before. It now fills up most of the “activity” screen to the detriment of the real information – who is downloading similar records and shares the same research interest. Also, clicking on “view” takes me to the original record, telling me absolutely nothing about how the Ancestry member altered the data.

    On another note to Mike O’Neill of 09/02/2015: Coercion or not, it is felt as such. It sounds as if those of us who do feel coerced should have never used Ancestry as a software service to begin with. You hooked us with a wonderful product and the implied promise of caring for our work – only to throw that trust and service out the window for an entirely different product with shadowed elements of the old.

    As for your “telemetry”. Any good researcher will tell you it is not the numbers that count, it’s how you got them in the first place. If you are counting all the people who have been “coerced” into using new Ancestry either as a brand new member or a previous member switched without knowing, or those who “hate” the new site, but are giving it a valiant try in order to give you your requested “feedback” – then your data is skewed. If you are counting as a positive response all people who call the telephone crew ABOUT the new, without determining their the reason for usage – then your data is skewed.

    I personally know younger users who are using the new, some because of new membership and some because they feel they “better get used to it”. NONE tell me they like it. NONE have told you that. Usage along does NOT mean satisfaction.

    Tell us the actual numbers- after you have found a way to determine the “reason” for usage and the “level” of satisfaction. Determine the length of time one ACTIVELY remains on the site – as a cursory user or a “real” user. Determine how much that user has “contributed” to Ancestry per their own research, and find a way to “weight” that data in your results Find a way to scientifically calculate “room for error”. Only then can your “numbers” be accepted as legitimate. Without considering such elements, you are not only fooling Ancestry subscribers, but yourself as well.

    As has been requested by others before, I think you should survey ALL Ancestry members. Only those most interested one way or the other will respond. Make it a fair survey that captures the needed data and then reassess your numbers. In the meantime, DON’T destroy Classic Ancestry. You may need it.

  13. Kathy Hughes

    I have been with Ancestry since 2007 and have always enjoyed it, as well as having found many of my ancestors and family I didn’t know I had. I must say that I am seriously considering cancelling my membership because of the “new” ancestry. I don’t like it, it’s difficult to navigate and information has been added to my tree that I DON’T want there. Having spent well over $2500.00 for my membership, I feel that my concerns are just simply being thrown away. And not being able to access information simply because I don’t want the NEW ancestry is just not right. I PAY for this service. I am 71 years old, and have had no problems with the “Classic” ancestry. Now they are telling me I HAVE to change and like it?? I have to agree with Denise, sounds a whole lot like coercion to me also.

  14. @Elhura: “Survey ALL” means census. But a census (or non-random-sample, opt-in survey) will skew your results via response bias because those who are satisfied with the service will be less likely to respond than those who are up in arms.

    No one is coercing you. You choose to spend your money with Ancestry, and you could choose to take a break from genealogy for six months (or forever) or focus on researching areas of your tree that ancestry isn’t useful for, without losing any of the data you have invested hundreds of hours in aggregating within this service.

    Look at it from another perspective. I have spent several thousand dollars on this service as well, including DNA tests, but I am increasingly spending my time and money elsewhere: ordering microfilms from the family history library, procuring probate documents from state and county archives, paying for obituaries and newspaper articles, ordering documents from the DAR, and spending money on competing DNA services as they have the detail I need to help an adoptee identify her half-siblings.

    I think about letting my subscription lapse too, but it’s because ancestry is not innovating fast enough nor adding new source documents fast enough. There’s a point where–if ancestry isn’t adding both at a fast enough clip–I will just go to the free version and focusing on adding external sources to my tree.

    That’s money Ancestry is losing.

    This particular feature, the new probate stuff, addresses one particular concern of mine–I can’t prove many lines of descent without probate documents, but I have to spend hours on manually viewing image after image on an antiquated image browser. Now there’s an index and a modern image browser here on ancestry, which gets me back into this service. For a while, at least. I’ll still need to go to on occasion, but I’ll be able to laser in on what I need.

    More than worth the silliness of the circular portrait. Which I wouldn’t mind seeing go away.

    But I like a lot of the new features. The life events? I don’t need it for most people in the tree, but when trying to sort out family with multiple wives with the same first name but different birth years? Yeah, it’s nice to see that she was giving birth at eleven without having to enter in all that data myself. And if I don’t want to see it for someone else, I can turn it off.

    The snappier, cleaner UI? I like it. I just wish Ancestry would invest as much time in IE & Edge as they do with Chrome and Firefox.

    Anyway, here’s someone who likes most of it. Not all of it, but then, I had some pretty serious complaints about the old UI. I sent Ancestry an email about once a month with new feature suggestions for a while.

  15. Patricia

    I was really excited when I received the email for free Wills, Probate, etc. thru Labor Day. Years ago I printed out an Index to Wills 1849-1944 for my ggggrandma thru Ancestry. The last few years I have tried to find it again and can’t. So when I received the email regarding probates, wills, etc. I tried to find it once more. The majority of items that show up are marriages and maybe one probate, wills, etc. I am so disappointed again in Ancestry. I had thought about renewing but will not. This email was again just a tease to get you to subscribe.

  16. I had hoped the reference page about using wills and probates would include info on which states are just indices and which have document images.,can you do that? Seems claiming however many million records is misleading when they are NOT the record but just an index with instructions for ordering the document. Nevertheless, I lucked out with some complete records from Ohio.
    For the record, I like the new format and am puzzled why some get so het up about it. I’m definitely not a young user, either.

  17. Curt Hartwig

    These probate records are great! I’m going to be up all night searching for records! I already found a bunch, and they have a lot of information in them. It took much too long on FamilySearch to locate them. As for the new, some new updates have made it better. I didn’t like it at first- in fact I hated it, but now I really like it. I just forced myself to use it, and now the old Ancestry seems kind of, well, old. Being able to merge people is great, the note section is better, using the Ancestry regular website on an iPad is easier (I rarely use the app), and I just turn off the ‘Family events’ and ‘Historical insights’. Some things could be improved in my opinion – the things I click on the most are a little hidden, but it becomes better once ya get used to it. Ancestry is the best thing to happen to genealogy. Now I can get a probate record in a few minutes, whereas yesterday it might take hours, and before the digital age I would probably never get a probate record from the other side of the country. I just happened to have vacation this week, and I am on hour 6 of searching the probate records!

    • Juliana Szucs

      Glad you’re enjoying them Curt! I’ve spent the last few weeks in them in prep for the launch, but looking forward to looking for some of my own ancestors this weekend! 🙂

  18. Steve Campbell

    Virginia appears to be the only state not represented in these new records. Any idea when Virginia will be added?

  19. Cyrone

    Catherine, You can convert back to the old format under your profile. It says Old Ancestry. Although, I am not sure how long that will be available. As I understand it, you will not be able to access the new wills unless you use the new format. This is the only reason I have not converted back yet. The wills are great. The new format is just awful in my opinion.

  20. Mindy

    Did I miss something here ?? I thought this was about the US Probate records that are now online!! Didn’t realize it was the “BASH Ancestry party”……. come on folks, give me a break ~~ all this dislike about the “new” ancestry is really getting on my nerves but I gotta stop right here and put in my two cents. When was the last time your local news station changed their anchor people and the settings? did you call/write to complain? I bet not….. and I bet your insurance company changed their website too with the “new look”, how about your banking company, your credit card company – just realize this – it’s a changing world everyday.

  21. Tom

    Awesome Tool, I already found previously unknown branches to my tree. This will keep me busy for along time. Great job !

  22. Jeff Jahn

    two issues I have seen with the probate records, first there’s no way to filter by county, which would really be nice, another the probate date’s I have seen in the index are way off a lot of times there the will date or something else, this wouldn’t be a problem except when you save it to you tree ancestry sneaks in the probate fact with the source link to it, this doesn’t show in you first window when your adding it so you might not even know.

  23. Bill Emanuel

    The probate records are a great new resource! Thanks

    While I understand that only the name of the deceased is indexed, I have a related question. Searching the Tennessee records for those who died in and about 1828, I find many search results that link to images of index pages within various volumes (will books, etc.). Can I assume a search on will find the image of the actual document identified in the index as well (not Ancestry index, but index in the volume), not just the entry in the volume’s index? I tried in a few test cases to find the actual document listed in a volume index; however, this proved very difficult if not impossible. In some instances, the page numbers in the volume index do not appear to coincide with the image page number or any identifiable page number on the images themselves.

    Thanks in advance for clarifying!


    • Juliana Szucs

      The indexing varies a lot within the collection. First check all the hits. If you are seeing your ancestor’s name in an index, but he or she is not coming up with the actual will or other record, navigate to the page number in the register index using the browse. Note: In some of the subsets you’ll have multiple registers. If you’re not seeing your ancestor on the corresponding register page number, typically found in the upper right or left corner of the register page, you may be in the wrong volume. We’ve created several resources to help navigate this complex collection. There is a guide here and a free Ancestry Academy class here. Good luck with your search.

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