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Three states, one case

Probate records are among the best genealogical records that exist.

When there is a will, it’s usually the case that the deceased names family members who are to receive his property after his death and does so with some indication of their relationship.

When there isn’t a will, the law uses relationships to determine who’s eligible to receive the deceased’s property after his death and the mere fact that we can find out who got what will often tell us how people were related to each other.

SmithBut there’s one hard fact about probates that The Legal Genealogist was reminded of last night, poking through court records again.

The very best records may not always be where you expect them to be.

Case in point: one Thomas Smith, who died on 7 May 1882 in Delaware County, Iowa.1 In his will, he identified himself as a resident of Coffins Grove Township, Delaware County, Iowa but “late of Winnebago County State of Illinois.”2 He left everything to his wife Matilda and named her as executrix of his estate.3

Matilda received letters testamentary in 1883 from the probate court in Delaware County, Iowa — but she didn’t live there. She was living, at that time, back in Winnebago County, Illinois.4 That’s where the family was enumerated in the 1880 census;5 it may be where her family was located.

Many of the records were originally filed in the Circuit Court for the 9th Judicial District of Iowa — the court with probate jurisdiction where Smith died.6 The case file shows that it was Thomas’ brother, John H. Smith, who was an Iowa resident, who filed the paperwork starting in July 1883 to have Matilda authorized to act for the estate in Iowa.7

But the will — indeed, the entire probate file — makes it clear that the estate really only had one asset: land in the Dakota Territory. Nothing in Illinois. Nothing in Iowa. So on the 14th of December 1883, a set of papers sealed by the clerk of the Circuit Court was sent to the Dakota Territory for use there.8

That’s where you get the rich detail about the land in Sections 25 and 26, Township 101 North, Range 49 West. With papers that began their journey in Illinois, from Matilda, and in Iowa, from Thomas and John.

We need to chase those probate files down everywhere the deceased owned property — even if it means checking the records of three different states.


SOURCES

  1. Minnehaha County, South Dakota, Probate Case File No. 55, Thomas Smith (1883-1886), Letters Testamentary, issued 11 Dec 1883; digital images, “South Dakota, Minnehaha County Probate Case Records, 1873-1935,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 18 May 2015).
  2. Ibid., will of Thomas Smith, dated 2 May 1883.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., Oath as Executrix, 10 Dec 1883.
  5. 1880 U.S. census, Winnebago County, Illinois, Rockford, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 227, p. 149(B) (stamped), dwelling 392, family 415, Thomas Smith household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 May 2015); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 261.
  6. See Minnehaha County, South Dakota, Probate Case File No. 55, Thomas Smith (1883-1886), Certificate of B. W. Lacy, Judge of the Circuit Court, 20 Dec 1883 (describing his court as “a court of record having … jurisdiction in Matters relating to the Probate of Wills and the Settlement of Estates”); digital images, “South Dakota, Minnehaha County Probate Case Records, 1873-1935,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 18 May 2015).
  7. Ibid., Application of John H. Smith, 23 July 1883.
  8. Ibid., case file no. 55.
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