Probate records can be a treasure trove of information. Here is the first of two articles about this source.I have been a little reluctant to write about the probate records as they can be hard to find and equally hard to read. However, I decided that it is time to have a go at this interesting source. It should also be said that I in no way consider myself an expert on probate records.
When a person passed away his or her estate could be managed either privately or publicly. It is, for the most part, the publicly managed estates that have made it into the records. It is these probate records we will have a brief look at here.
The first laws and regulation concerning the probation of an estate were put in place in the early 1600s (Winge 1996:7). It was first in the last part of the 1600s these probation records were starting to get organized and we can “more easily” find information about our ancestors in bound books called “Skifteprotokoller” (Thorvaldsen 1996: 123).
According to King Christian V’s Norwegian law of 1687 public probation of an estate should take place when
- any of the heirs were under the legal age (umyndige)
Before 1619 the legal age was 20. From 1619 to 1869 the legal age was 25. (Gjermundsen 1992:9) Women did not have personal legal control in Norway until 1888 (Wikipedia) and thus had to have a guardian.
- any of the heirs were absent and could not be summoned in time or the probation
- the deceased had foreign heirs
- when there were no heirs
There is another case when the estate was publicly probated, that is not specifically mentioned in the law. This is in cases where none of the above applies, but the heirs could not agree on how to divide the estate.
Based on what we have seen here, there were not always held a probate court hearing, so we might not be able to find one for our ancestor.
The records are for the most part written in a set pattern (Gjermundsen 192:8)
- The time of the probation
Normally within 3 months of the passing. This could, however, take a much longer time.
- The place of the probated estate.
Recorded is the name of the farm and also the court district. As there are many farms in Norway with the same or similar names, it is very important that we check to see that we are in the right court district.
- The name of the magistrate or clerk that organized the probation
- Normally two lay judges (lagrettemenn) from the local community
- The name of the deceased
- The name of the spouse
Sometimes we see that the name of deceased spouses are recorded
- The name of the children
If the children were not yet of legal age we also find the name of their guardians. The guardians were often members of the larger family who were not entitled to any inheritance in the estate in question.
If any of the deceased person’s children also had passed, we find his or her children or grandchildren listed as legal heirs (i.e the testator’s grand-, and/or greatgrandchildren).
After this, the evaluation of the estate starts where the following are listed
- all moveables and land property are listed and each item is given a monetary value.
- the estate’s liabilities
- the claims the estate have
- the court fees related to having the estate probated
This gives the estate’s net worth.
The last part of the probate record shows how the estate is divided. -Who gets what. Listed here might be items from the estate or a sum of money. In this part, the heirs are again mentioned by their names. If it is hard to make out the names in the first part of the record, we have another chance here.
The earliest probate records were recorded in one book (Skifteprotokoll). Later the probate records were divided into three books. We see this change start to take place in the middle of the 1770s. When we reach the 1800s this was common practice (Lokalhistoriewiki).
The tree parts (books) concerning probate records where:
- Skifteregistreringsprotokoll. This part records the items bullet-pointed above
- Skifteforhandlingsprotokoll This record contains the minutes from the court meeting
- Skifteutlodningsprotokoll This record shows how the estate is divided
As genealogists, we may find the first and the last of these books most interesting.
We find a large number of probate records in the Digital Archives
I hope I have been able to cover all bases in this little introduction. As I started out, the probate records can be a treasure trove of information. They can, however, be hard to find and read.
In the next article, I will look at the actual records and try to give some hints about how we can extract useful information from them.
Christian Vs NORSKE LOV: Femte Bog. 2 Cap. Om Arv og Skifte. https://www.hf.uio.no/iakh/tjenester/kunnskap/samlinger/tingbok/kilder/chr5web/chr5_05_02.html
Gjermundsen, Arne Johan. 1992. Skifteregister for Holla – Nedre Telelmark. Ulefoss. LTB
Thorvaldsen, Gunnar. 1996. Håndbok i registrering og bruk av historiske data. Oslo. Tano – Aschehoug
Winge, Harald 1996. “Lovgivningen om offentlig skifte” in Skiftene som kilde, edited by Liv Marthinsen 7 – 28. Oslo: Norsk lokalhistorisk institutt