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The records of renunciation

It is a strong word, the word renounce.

To the ordinary dictionary, it means “to give up, refuse, or resign usually by formal declaration (renounce his errors).”1

To the law, it means to “reject; cast off; repudiate; disclaim; forsake; abandon; divest one’s self of a right, power, or privilege. Usually it implies an affirmative act of disclaimer or disavowal.”2

Burlington.renounceAnd to the genealogist, it means a terrific set of records, useful in proving family relationships beyond almost any other set of records we might ever hope to find.

Particularly when it appears in the context of the second definition given in the law dictionaries: that of renouncing probate. Meaning, in English practice, “refusing to take upon one’s self the office of executor or executrix. Refusing to take out probate under a will wherein one has been appointed executor or executrix.”3 Or, just as commonly in American practice, the act of declining to serve as administrator of an estate when the law would have given the person preference to act in that role.

Case in point: the volumes of renunciations filed with the Surrogate– the chief probate officer — of Burlington County, New Jersey, between 1878 and 1908 that The Legal Genealogist came across last night, digitized on FamilySearch. (And why, yes, I am speaking this Saturday, May 21, at the Burlington County Historical Society, at 2 p.m. — come on out and join us!)

New Jersey law at the time, like the law of most jurisdictions, gave preference in administering an estate to the spouse and then next of kin of any person who died without a will. If none of them would serve, then the court would appoint someone else, often someone the family asked to have appointed.4 And many family members didn’t want to serve, didn’t feel capable of serving, or had agreed that someone else would be better.

So they filed renunciations — formal statements declining to serve.

These are not long documents. They’re filled with boilerplate language. Only rarely is a particular reason given for not serving, as, for example, when Sterling Bonsall renounced his appointment as executor and trustee of the will of Joshua Eyre in 1879 and explained: “the property is in another state and my health will not allow of attending to his wishes and administering on his Estate…”5

But despite those limitations, these are records not to be missed, because nearly every one spells out genealogical information that’s priceless. Just a few examples, to whet your appetite:

• Rebecca Ann Clevenger, Mary Ann Parker, Haldale Kirby and Mary Parker were identified as the “widow & children of Samuel P. Paker of Springfield Township who died intestate,” and filed their renuncation 21 November 1878.6

• Hannah M. Shamalia was the aunt of Charles Leeds, and renounced administration of his estate in favor of Henry S. Haines.7 Esther M. Stiles was Leeds’ niece, and also renounced in Haines’ favor,8 as did another aunt, Mary Morris.9

• Five daughters of John Lukemire — Mary Pitman, Elizabeth White, Eunice S. Wells, Annie McCully, and Esther H. Lukemire — all renounced their right to administer their father’s estate, and instead “request(ed) that Charles M. Sloan be appointed.”10

• Nathan M. Stevenson, Stacy Stevenson, Cornell Stevenson, Ann Pew, Sarah Cox and Edwin Steward, identified as “nephews and nieces of Mary Stevenson, who died intestate, being entitled to share in the administration of her effects,” renounced their right and asked, instead, that Mary Anna Steward be appointed.11

• The next of kin of Elizabeth C. Fort, who died without a will, were Charles S. Cook, Sarah G. Cook, Jane Lamson, Abram R. Woolston and Thomas C. Woolston, and they all renounced in favor of Joshua S. Lamson of Bordentown.12

• When Lillie E. Hopkins died without leaving a will, it was her mother, Elizabeth A. Howard, and her sister Sallie E. Hopkins, who renounced their right to administer the estate in favor of Joseph M. Brick.13

• And when Jesse H. Gray died intestate, his widow and children all renounced their right to administer the estate in favor of James Lippincott. The renunciation identified all of the family members — including not just the daughters, but their husbands as well: “Sarah Gray widow and Mary B Estill wife of Charles Estill, Keturah H. Gray, Sarah Jane Parker wife Joseph G Parker, Beulah Dubel wife of John H Dubel, Roxanna F. Clevenger wife of Wm. D Clevenger and Samuel H Gray, children…”14

Now in this particular county during this particular time period, these renunciations were filed in a separate book in the Surrogate’s Office. In many other jurisdictions and at different times, the procedure may well have been different: you’ll find renunciations in the court minutes, or in the file granting administration, or in the loose papers. And, of course, there are times when you won’t find it at all.

But if you’re trying to reconstruct the Gray family of Burlington County in the 1870s, knowing who each of the husbands of each of the daughters was would give you a big leg up in your research, no?

Worth looking for.

As a way to for us to get information when they, back then, gave up their right to administer an estate.


  1. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 16 May 2016), “renounce.”
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1021, “renounce.”
  3. Ibid., “renouncing probate.”
  4. See §28, An act respecting the orphans’ court, and relating to the powers and duties of the ordinary, and the orphans’ court and surrogates, 27 March 1874, in Revision of the Laws of New Jersey (Trenton, N.J., John L. Murphy, Printer, 1877), 758; digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library ( : accessed 16 May 2016).
  5. Burlington County, New Jersey, Surrogate’s Court, Renunciations 1: 5, In re Estate of Joshua Eyre, renunciation of Sterling Bonsall, 20 January 1879; digital images, “New Jersey Probate Records, 1678-1980 > Burlington > Renunciations 1878-1908 vol 1-2,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 16 May 2016).
  6. Ibid., In re Estate of Samuel Parker, 21 Nov 1878, Renunciations 1: 1-2.
  7. Ibid., In re Estate of L. Charles Leeds, 23 Dec 1878, Renunciations 1: 2.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., Renunciations 1: 3.
  10. Ibid., In re Estate of John Lukemire, 25 Feb 1879, Renunciations 1: 7.
  11. Ibid., In re Estate of Mary Stevenson, 14 Feb 1879, Renunciations 1: 9.
  12. Ibid., In re Estate of Elizabeth C. Fort, 14 March 1879, Renunciations 1: 11-13.
  13. Ibid., In re Estate of Lillie E. Hopkins, 21 July 1879, Renunciations 1: 21-22.
  14. Ibid., In re Estate of Lillie E. Hopkins, 16 Aug 1879, Renunciations 1: 23.
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