Posted by Ancestry Team on April 18, 2016 in Research

The U.S. Wills and Probates collections hold the answer to countless questions about our family trees. As you’re going through, don’t be disappointed if your ancestor didn’t leave a will. His (or sometimes her) death could still have generated records that answer who the children are.

Guardianship Records

Guardians become involved when the minor heirs have a legal interest that needs protected. (Guardians didn’t necessarily have custody of the child.) What’s great about guardianship records that they usually list their relationship to the deceased. Look for these in the probate packet as well as in separate ledgers.


This guardianship record spells out that Charles Sammons was a child “above the age of fourteen” and was a child of Jacob Sammons, late of Cheboygan County [Michigan], deceased.

Final Distributions or Final Settlements

Look through the papers of the estate for something called a final distribution or final settlement. It spells out how the money was paid out and often specifies who the heirs were, including how the heir was related to the deceased. (Remember: Heir doesn’t necessarily mean “child.” The laws of that state at that time determine who is an heir when someone dies without a will.) Sometimes these papers are included in the loose papers of the probate packet; other times they are in ledger books.

If there isn’t one statement that spells out the final distribution, read through the receipts filed by the administrator of the estate. In this receipt, Samuel Bone is acknowledging that he received $19.78 from the estate of Wm. Bone, deceased, “…being the distributive share of the personal property of my father’s estate.”

William Bone estate, folder 96, Vinton County, Ohio.

Land and Partition Records

If the deceased died owning land, the heirs (or their guardians) would have been involved in land records to sell or release their claim. In some locations, the process of the heirs selling/releasing their claim is known as partition. Look for these as part of the probate process, either in the probate packet or in separate volumes. Also look for land records, which are usually maintained by an office other than the probate court. (In some states, it’s the county recorder; in others, it’s the county auditor.)

When James Elwell died in 1836, he left a widow Mary Ann and a daughter Mary Jane. He also owned land in Fountain County, Indiana. Here are a few lines from the partition record to sell that land in 1856:

Fountain County, Indiana, Partition Book 1, p. 21. From Indiana, Will and Probate Records, 1798-1999.
Fountain County, Indiana, Partition Book 1, p. 21. From Indiana, Will and Probate Records, 1798-1999.

“…that said James Elwell deceased left surviving him as his widow your Petitioner Mary Ann Penner and one child Mary Jane Elwell. Your Petitioner would further show that your Petitioner, Mary Ann, Widow as aforesaid on the 17th January 1838 intermarried with your Petitioner John Penner, and that in August 1854, Mary Jane Elwell intermarried with Joseph Parks…”

That partition record gives us not only the child’s name (and spells out that she was his child), but also gives the name of her husband, along with the name of the widow’s next husband. If James had left a will, the estate might have been settled long before either Mary Ann or Mary Jane married — and we would have missed those clues.


Don’t despair if you don’t find a will for your ancestor. There could still be records that show who his or her children are. In some cases, like with James Elwell, we get more information than if there had been a will.


  1. Linda E

    Guardianship records are a wonderful source of information, I happened upon such a document for my great grandmother who’s father had died suddenly when she was only six years old. This guardianship record not only gave me the year of her father’s death which I didn’t have but it also listed all of her siblings and their ages too. This was a wonderful find for me and I know search probate records regularly, you just never know what will turn up.

  2. calyx

    Another good source for finding out what became of children are lawsuits. I’ve seen several where the adult children sued their “guardians” for stealing their inheritances.
    Stealing from orphans was big time in the USA. Also, a lot of “adoptions”, tutorships, and guardianships were not legal. No court was involved. Customarily, orphans would be placed with nearest adult relatives by family consensus and there would be no legal record. I’ve found them because I know the names of the people “entrusted” with their care. Good luck with the orphan trains.
    Great when they work you 14 hours a day in their drygoods store, let you sleep in the stockroom, and won’t buy you a pair of shoes with your parents money that they are living on. Such was the world of my grandparents. It’s significant that none of these suits were settled in favor of the children. They never recovered what was stolen from them. Were the judges in collusion?

  3. Chancey Pearson

    What in the world is the deal?my life has been nothing but trails and tribulations due to my own family?

  4. Jason Anthony

    I’d like u to find the real me I’ve got my grandpa key and I can show u the place we would go.

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