Probate Records Part 1: A Forgotten Resource

When we do searches for our ancestors, we tend to concentrate mainly on their birth, death, and the years in between. What we sometimes forget about, is the record set that comes after death: probate records.

Simply put, probate records are the court records that have to do with the distribution of your ancestor\’s effects after their death. These fall into two categories:

  • testate: when the deceased had a will
  • intestate: when no will was made or found
The probate process could be a long one. There are many steps to it. Family dynamics and the size of the estate a person left could make the process last years. Family Search has a great wiki on the Canadian probate process here.
Probate records in Canada can sometimes predate civil registration in some provinces. It may be one of the only clues you have as to when someone died. They can contain a wealth of information. Along with the date and place of death, you can also find:
  • Spousal information
  • The deceased\’s will if there was one
  • Inventory of assets : This could be goods, land, and/or money
  • Details of debts
  • Names of heirs: Could be the deceased\’s children,but not necessarily. They could also be favourite extended family members, or no relation at all. 
  • Family relationships
  • Names of guardians for underage children
  • Names of witnesses: They could be family or friends.
  • Residences: If they had land in several jurisdictions, you can follow where they moved. 
  • Birth information: An especially handy tidbit if they were your immigrant ancestor.

Not all probate records will have a lot of information. Others can contain a genealogical gold mine. For example I came across a Manitoba probate record for a Elizabeth McDonald that was probated in 1910. Among the first few pages, I found the following information:

  • Elizabeth died 20 January 1903
  • Elizabeth was a resident and died in Michpicton, Ontario, but had property in the Eastern Judicial District of Manitoba
  • Elizabeth was the wife of Ewan McDonald, who died 4 September 1909 in Michpicton, Ontario
  • She had estate and assets \”…within Manitoba worth no more than $3600.00 to the best of your Petitioner\’s knowledge and belief…\”
  • Elizabeth died without a will
  • When she died, there were eight living children
  • Son Alexander A. McDonald lived in Winnipegosis Manitoba and was an accountant
  • Daughter Mary Helen McDonald resided in Winnipeg and was the petitioner to become Administratrix. She was unmarried.
  • Daughter Annie Catherine Lauder lived in Elphinstone, Manitoba. She was married.
  • Son Robert Campbell McDonald lived in Prince Rupert, British Columbia
  • Son Samuel Lawrence McDonald lived in Helen Mine P.O., Ontario and was a storekeeper
  • Daughter Gertrude Elizabeth Ewing lived in Prince Rupert, Bristish Columbia. She was married.
  • Son Kenneth McDonald lived in Isle a la Crosse, Saskatchewan and was a clerk
  • Son Hunter McDonald worked as a surveyor in Northern Ontario.
  • All Mary Helen\’s siblings gave written consent for her to be Administratrix, except Hunter, who \”…was engaged in a survey in Northern Ontario, out of reach by communication by mail…\”
  • Elizabeth had interest in property in Manitoba from the estate of a deceased Abt[?] Murray of the Parish of St. Clements in Manitoba. 

That\’s a lot of information in just half a dozen pages or so. Along with the whereabouts of the children, you get the added bonus of their signatures on the documents. They are many avenues one can follow. For instance, who is the mysterious Murray that Elizabeth was bequeathed land from?

Some points to consider:

Don\’t assume that all family members named in the records are the only ones. Children who died before their parents would obviously not have an interest in the Estate.

The majority of women will not have probate files, unless they died unmarried or a widow.

Quebec differs from the rest of Canada, as they did not follow English Common Law. Even among the English speaking provinces, the laws dictating how an estate was settled can differ between provinces.

Remember that our definitions of relationships now does not always apply to relationships back then. For instance, niece and nephew once also meant grandchildren. Also, the term \”in-law\” didn\’t used to mean just the spouse\’s family. It also referred to step relationships. For instance, a \”son in-law\” could also have been a stepson. Conversely, your sister in-law Ruth today could also have just been called a sister in the past. Or, she could have been referred to as your \”good sister\” Ruth.

Next post we\’re going to travel across Canada and look at each province\’s unique way of dealing with a deceased\’s estate.

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