Genealogy – Testate or Intestate?

Confused about the terms ‘testate’ and ‘intestate’?  Many of the old probate records we may be looking at in our research will address both of these terms. Probate is the legal process in which ownership of property is transferred from the probate estate to the heirs.

First the Will has to be proven to be valid, the administrator identified, and then the process starts to distribute the property.  If your ancestor left a will they died ‘testate’.  That means they listed their wishes in detail in their last Will and Testament.

I have found a few old Wills in my research and they are valuable sources of information.  They may list the children, property descriptions or personal property.  Often the name of the executor is a relative so that’s a clue you can follow up on for further information.  This is true for the witnesses as well.  It has been frustrating for me in a few instances that the man leaves his property to ‘his wife’ and doesn’t give a name – just wife.  Oh well…

If your ancestor died ‘intestate’ that meant they left no Will and had no say in how their estate was distributed or who received what.  If there is no Will, probate is then when the court appoints the administrator.

If there is no Will state law usually determines who gets what, who has priority and so on.  Depending on the year, the jurisdiction, and the state, these laws vary.  Most often the surviving spouse and children will get the first and largest share of the estate.  An outdated will might have ended up being ‘intestate’ if the court decided the will wasn’t valid.

When the court decides the distribution of property according to the laws of descent and distribution, that was called ‘intestate succession’ and still is.

Don’t overlook Wills and Probate Records in your research.  They are interesting to read, especially if there is a list of property.  Sometimes the few processions that had and valued are insignificant compared to today’s standards and reveal so much about the difficult lives they led.