If I was researching the Myerly family of Carroll County, Maryland, I would be jumping for joy! Hidden in an obscure estate file was the Holy Grail of genealogy documentation: a one-page letter naming the deceased’s children, their spouses, and the deceased’s grandchildren.
David Myerly, the decedent, died without a will. Therefore, it was necessary for a “Letter of Administration” to be created to name an executor who would distribute Mr. Myerly’s property with legal authority.
I came across this treasure while working with our team of volunteers to prepare documents for digitization at the Maryland Archives (see my earlier Meridian article). For the previous two weeks, we had been processing hundreds of Letters of Administration, but they were simply the standard forms as shown below.
This stunning discovery of a detailed letter reinforced the first principle of the Genealogical Proof Standard: conducting a reasonably exhaustive search. Or, in simpler terms: searching for every document that could possibly exist for your ancestor and his family.
Did you know that in Maryland, there are sixteen separate records that could possibly be created for anyone who dies in that state? Sixteen! Wills are simply one of those record sets. In the case of David Myerly and numerous others who died without a will, some type of legal documentation had to be created to settle the estate.
Until now, I – along with too many of my fellow genealogists – have been guilty of short-changing my research in probate and estate records. I always looked for a will and if none existed, I would not take the next step to seek additional probate records. Instead, I would think, “well, there’s another brick in this ancestor’s wall,” and promptly move on to obituaries or cemetery records or tombstone searches.
Never again will I short change any record collection!
We have now completed seven of the sixteen Carroll County probate record collections. We have found dozens of unexpected and genealogically related documents attached to standard forms. While processing Releases[i] created in 1909, we found a form signed by the brother of the deceased. This brother was living in a village in Poland! Anyone who has tried to locate an ancestral place of origin “across the pond” knows how complex and at times, almost impossible, it is to pinpoint an exact town or village. Yet this research key was perfectly documented in the Release papers.
What types of record collections can be created for a probate file? In Maryland, they are:
5.Notices to Creditors
6.Letters of Administration
16.Accounts of Sale, Real Estate
Other states also create these, or similar, estate records. Any one of these collections can hold a key to your research. You never know what is hidden in these records until you search them, one by one.
Carol Kostakos Petranek is a Co-Director of the Washington DC Family History Center, a FamilySearch Volunteer Coordinator, and a Citizen Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
[i] Definition of Release: As each heir receives his or her portion of the estate, he or she signs a receipt or release to the executor/administrator. These receipts give the name of the heir, the amount and description of property received, the name of the executor/administrator, the names of guardians of minor children, and the name of the deceased. These releases are filed among the original estate papers. Source: Ancestry.com Wiki