Massachusetts Probate Record Research
Wills and Estate Administrations
List of Heirs - Estate Inventory - Disbursements
This page explains a few ways to locate, research, and order a Massachusetts probate record.
Massachusetts probate records include, but are not limited to, wills, estate administrations, divorce and legal name changes.
State law mandates probate court files are public records and are available for review, copying, and or for purchasing certified copies.
Request for copies of most probate files from the counties of Bristol, Middlesex, Norfolk and Suffolk (Greater Boston), can be made directly on this website.
Adoption records are also part of probate court, but adoption records in Massachusetts are sealed, "closed". A court order from a local judge is needed for access.
For more official information on adoption laws in Massachusetts, see Chapter 210: Adoption of Children and Change of Name.
"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 and hundreds of pages."
NOTE: Researchers should understand that 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 millions and 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 mid 20th century records, i.e. 1935.
How else can mass-doc.com help?
The staff at mass-doc.com has substantial experience in locating these original probate case files.
Retrieval service is currently available for the following eastern Massachusetts counties:
If you'd like to order a probate file, please go to our probate order form.