A Detailed Guide to Researching Massachusetts Probate Records
Wills and Estate Administrations - List of Heirs - Estate Inventories
"To locate a Massachusetts probate record, you can start by searching for the probate court in the county where the person who made the will lived; their official residence; not their place of death."
About the Author
J. James Simonson, a journalism graduate from Suffolk University in Boston, stands out for his specialization in contemporary Massachusetts court records, focusing on probate, divorce, and estate cases. Through detailed research and analysis, he supports law firms, paralegals, financial institutions, and genealogists, seamlessly connecting traditional genealogical methods with the complexities of modern legal proceedings. Known for his adept interpretation of legal documents, Simonson is invaluable for those exploring intricate legal histories. Actively keeping abreast of the latest legal trends, he continuously enhances his contributions to the field.
Once you have located the probate court, contact the court clerk's office and request a copy of the probate record.
You will need to provide the full name of the person who made the will and any other relevant information, such as the date of the will or the name of the executor.
The court clerk will be able to search the court's records and provide you with a copy of the probate record, if it exists. Some courts charge a fee, others do not charge a fee.
Our Probate Court Research Services
Looking for a more transparent, maybe more discreet way to request a probate record? Don't want to deal with a court? Don't want to give your name?
State law fortunately mandates probate court files are public records and are available for review, copying, and or for purchasing certified copies.
For a fee, discrete and completely transparent
copies of probate records
from the counties of Bristol, Middlesex, Norfolk and Suffolk (Greater Boston), can also be made directly on this website.
Looking for Historical Probate Records?
Looking for older records from 18th or 19th century? We can provide those as well but you can also look up names too see if there's a
published probate record
, on-line or in book form.
Most of the Massachusetts county probate courts also have an
online index of probate records
that can be searched from the comfort of your home. This can make it easier to find the record you are looking for without having to contact the court directly. These indexes generally cover probate records for the last 15 - 20 years.
At present, older records, especially mid 20th century, are not indexed online and it's only the actual records from the last 15 years, or so, that our fully scanned, digitized and available for viewing online for free.
It's important to note here, as we get hundreds of requests for copies of adoption records each year, that adoption records in Massachusetts are sealed and are not available to the public without a court order.
If you are looking for an adoption record, you will need to contact the probate court directly and request a local court order to access the record.
What Kind of Information Can I Find in Probate Records?
"In general, probate files can contain a single record, such as a letter of administration, or contain a combination of records, such as a will, various bonds, inventories, accounts, claims, petitions, administrations and lists of heirs. Some files are very small, others can contain hundreds of pages."
No two probate files are ever identical and to say that original probate case files are a gold mine of information is certainly an understatement.
NOTE:Researchers should understand not every person leaves behind a will or any other type of probate record. Many people either "give away" property and valuables before their death or, quite simply, fail to prepare for the inevitable.
A good rule of thumb, for any probate researcher, is to not only search possible probate files on one single person, i.e., your great-great grandfather, but also search for his children, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins. Therein lies the beauty of probate files. Probate records are primarily family oriented documents. In many cases researchers mistakenly search for that one all important name and if not located, move on to other types of records. By doing so, valuable information can easily be overlooked. The majority of probate files, probably 95%, are indexed only by the decedent - not by other heirs listed in the document. That is why it is very important to broaden the search.
In general, you can bet that most wills name a spouse and living children. Sometimes children are not listed by name, simply "my five sons and two daughters". Also, not all next-of-kin are necessarily named. In cases where the will is disputed however, or the decedent leaves no living children for example, numerous next-of-kin can be included. This can include grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins and other relations. In many cases, the residence, including street address, town and state, as well as the specific relationship to the decedent is stated in the probate. Where else could that type of information be found in just one document?
Overall, There are Basically Two Classes of Probate Records.
If a person died and left a will, his or her probate is referred to as testate. If the person did not leave a will, their probate, most usually in the form of a letter of administration, is referenced as intestate.
For a far more in depth and excellent discussion of probate records, their overall value, probate terminology and definitions, we recommend you read more about this subject in a book written by Val D. Greenwood. The book is titled, The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, published in Baltimore, by the Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc.,1990. Chapter 13 on probate, chapter 14 on wills and chapter 17 on miscellaneous probate records, including intestate and guardianships, are especially recommended.
Where Can I Find Probate Records?
In Massachusetts, probate records are filed at the county level, based on the residence of the decedent at the time of death. To clarify, if a person died in Boston (Suffolk County) but actually lived in Duxbury (Plymouth County), than the probate file, if any, is filed at the Plymouth County Probate Court, not Suffolk County.
Locating the original probate records in Massachusetts however, amongst a plethora of archive depositories and county court houses can be a real challenge for the inexperienced researcher. In many cases, older original files must be requested and that can take several days, even weeks.
In many counties, probate documents prior to the 20th century, have been relocated from their original county courthouse location to other archive repositories within the state. This has occurred primarily for three reasons. One, it's simply a matter of space - we are talking about millionsand millions of records across the state. Two, in order to keep deterioration to a bare minimum, records are now housed in environmentally controlled storage facilities. Lastly, moving the records was done to help deter theft.
Unfortunately, over the years too many original records have simply vanished. That's where probate "record books" come in useful, but more on that further ahead. Many other original county probate records are in storage and are basically inaccessible to the average researcher.
Gaining access to records can be both tricky and time consuming. In fact, within each county, there can be varying degrees of time dated material available to researchers. In other words, some county probate courts have original records back to the date of county establishment; i.e. 1637, others only have originals beginning with early 20th century records, i.e. 1920's.
Other avenues that out of state researchers can pursue is to peruse the digitized probate records originally microfilmed by the Family History Library (FHL) of the Church of the Later Day Saints (LDS). The FHL has microfilmed many of the probate indexes and probate record books for the entire state. With the exception of Middlesex county - the FHL did film the original probate case files for Middlesex county - only - through 1871 - these probate record books filmed by the FHL are simply transcriptions of the wills and - perhaps - other documents in the case file. They are generally not films of the complete original file. The main problem with record books is that you never really know for sure what was or was not transcribed into the record book. Most important and most crucial to probate researchers, is that the list of petitioners or list of heirs, is generally not included.
Record books are invaluable in the cases of missing, lost or stolen original probate files. The serious researcher, if at all possible, should not rely solely on record book transcriptions.