Posted by Amy Johnson Crow on December 1, 2015 in Research

Death records are one of the things that we want to find for each ancestor. However, there are times when that record doesn’t exist.  (Don’t you hate it when an ancestor dies before that state started keeping death records?!)

If you can’t find a death record and his or her tombstone hasn’t been found or is illegible, take a look at his or her will. You can get at least an estimate of when he or she died.

John Douglass’s will is included in the Pennsylvania, Wills and Probate Records, 1683-1993 collection.  In the opening paragraph, he states that he’s writing his will on the “thirtieth day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and six.”

Will of John Douglass, Greene County, Pennsylvania, Will Book 1, page 51.
Will of John Douglass, Greene County, Pennsylvania, Will Book 1, page 51.

After his will, there is the notation of it being admitted into probate. George Morris, John Fordyce, and John Morris gave their oath to John Boreman, Register for the Probate of Wills, that they saw John Douglass sign the will and that what they presented was his last will and testament. This occurred on “the third day of March in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and six.”

Greene County, Pennsylvania, Will Book 1, page 52.
Greene County, Pennsylvania, Will Book 1, page 52.

Bracketing the Death Date

John Douglass had to be alive on 30 January 1806, as that’s when he wrote the will. He was dead on or before 3 March 1806, since that’s when his will was admitted to probate.

Two notes:

  • He likely died closer to 3 March than to 30 January, as the probate process is usually started shortly after death.
  • He probably didn’t die on 3 March 1806. If he did, that means that on the same day he died, all three witnesses to his will got together, got his will, went to the courthouse, and had it admitted into probate. It could happen, but not very likely. It’s more likely that John Douglass died a few days before.

How You Can Do This

Look for language in the will that says something like “On <date>, I <person writing the will> being of sound mind and body, do hereby record this, my last will and testament.” That’s the date the will was written. If the date isn’t at the beginning of the will, like it is in John Douglass’s will, look at the end of the will, just before the signature. Sometimes it will be phrased as, “I <person writing the will> do set my hand on this <date>.”

Then look immediately after the will for the notation that it was admitted into probate. Look for language like we see in John Douglass’s case. “On <date>, before me <name and position in the court> took testimony of the witnesses of <deceased>.” That is the date the will was admitted into probate. This is the last possible date the person could have been alive.

You will find wills that were written several years before it was admitted to probate. In all likelihood, the person died closer to the probate date than the will’s date.

When you’re looking at wills, look for those two dates: the date the will was written and the date it was admitted into probate. With those two dates, you’ll have narrowed down when the person died.

Amy Johnson Crow

Amy Johnson Crow is a Certified Genealogist and an active lecturer and author. Her roots run deep in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. She earned her Masters degree in Library and Information Science at Kent State University. Amy loves to help people discover the joys of learning about their ancestors and she thinks that there are few things better than a day in a cemetery. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Amy Johnson Crow.

6 Comments

  1. Brenda Mason

    Thanks for this! Was there any sort of standard about how long after death the will was presented for probate? Did the courts meet monthly or quarterly? Did it make a difference as to the size of the county or how far back into the mists of time we are looking? And how about application for Letters of Administration for those who died without a will? For clarification, most of my research focuses on Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia with time frames reaching back to the 1650s in Virginia, post-1700 in South Carolina, and mostly 1800 in Georgia.

  2. Tarah

    In some places, didn’t they have to wait like 14 or 15 days before they could submit the will to the court? I’ve seen some where they have to swear an oath that it has been 14 days since the person died. It may be when they file for administration papers, I can’t remember. Not sure if that is everywhere or just some places or just a certain time period.

  3. Susan Shirey

    Just so you know, Ancestry’s record page for wills usually shows the date the will was signed as the probate date, even when the image shows the date the will was entered into probate. As you indicate, the date the will was signed is very unlikely to be the probate date. I hope they fix this at some point.

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