Using Minnesota Probate Court Records
Minnesota’s probate courts create records that have value to genealogists, scholars, local historians, and other researchers. This leaflet describes the various types of records created by the probate courts, their relationships to each other, how the records are organized, and which records may be found at the Minnesota Historical Society. The probate records are arranged by the county in which the court actions took place and are organized by specific records series, for example, case files, registers of actions, will books, and final decree records. Specific holdings at the Minnesota Historical Society can be found in the Library’s online catalog. Search by the name of the county plus the term “probate court” (e.g. Todd County probate court).
Probate courts were established in Minnesota counties shortly after the organization of each county. The main responsibility of the probate courts was to oversee the orderly disposition of a decedent’s real and personal property after his/her death. Additional responsibilities varied from county to county but usually included determination of an individual’s sanity or mental capacity, prior to the individual’s commitment to a state hospital or the appointment of a guardian; the appointment of a guardian for minor children who had been orphaned, abandoned, or whose parental rights had been terminated, including commitment of children to the State Public School in Owatonna; and the adjudication of juveniles accused of criminal offenses, before the establishment of specific juvenile courts in the county.
Throughout much of their history, the probate courts were separate from other courts in the county and exercised substantial autonomy. Beginning in the 1960s, the autonomy of the probate courts was increasingly questioned. Extensive court reorganization during the next two decades enfolded the probate courts first into respective County Courts and, by the 1980s, into a unified District Court at the county level. For the purpose of cataloging probate court records at the Minnesota Historical Society, probate records handled by the County Courts—in the 1960s through 1980s—may have been filed under the Probate Court rather than the more organizationally-correct County Court.
Types of Records
Case Files are the major records created by the probate courts. Case files contain copies of each document filed in a probate action. In an estate action, the case file normally contains documents requesting an appointment of an administrator or administratrix; filing and proving of the will, if the decedent has a valid will; authorizing the payment of valid claims on the decedent’s estate; inventorying the assets and liabilities of the estate; and determining the appropriate disposition of the assets to heirs or legatees. In an insanity action the case file may contain a petition asking the court to declare an individual insane, medical testimony bearing on the individual’s mental capacity, a determination by the court of the individual’s mental state, the possible commitment to a state hospital or other facility, and the appointment of a guardian for the individual. The guardian may have to file regular reports on the finances of the individual adjudged insane. Guardianship files for minors or for adults who were unable to handle their affairs may contain a petition to appoint a guardian, reports from social service or other agencies requested by the judge, and reports on any assets that the minor child or incapacitated adult may be entitled to. In a juvenile delinquency action the case file may contain criminal complaints against the individual, investigatory reports ordered by the court, sentences imposed by the court, and follow-up reports ordered by the court.
Case files are normally filed in numerical order according to numbers assigned at the time of the opening of the case. In some counties a single numerical sequence includes all types of cases. In other counties separately numbered series of files exist for estate cases, insanity cases, guardianship cases, or other special case types.
The Minnesota Historical Society holds microfilm of probate case files from several counties. Some of these files have been microfilmed by the county and the microfilm transferred to the MHS. For other counties, early case files—especially pre-1920—have been microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah with copies of the microfilm available at the MHS. Case files not available at the MHS should be available in the District Court in the respective county.
Registers of Actions contain a record of the opening of each case and a notation of each document filed in the case. Each volume usually includes an index to the cases in that volume. The registers usually include the case file number thereby providing an alternative to a separate index to the case files. Although the register entries are brief and generally contain little data, they provide a framework for the history of each case and its participants. These record books usually date from the establishment of the probate court in the county. A few counties have transferred their registers of probate actions to the Minnesota Historical Society, either in the original or on microfilm.
Will Books contain a verbatim transcript of each will approved by the Probate Court and entered into the court record. Will books are normally arranged chronologically according to the date in which the will was entered into the court record, usually—but by no means always—shortly after the death of the individual. Researchers should be aware that the date the will was made might have been many years before the will was entered into the court record. The will books contain only the last will approved by the court. They will not contain earlier versions of wills that were later superceded. The will recorded in the will book will not contain original signatures of its creator or witnesses. The original will is normally part of the probate case file. The Minnesota Historical Society has will books, generally pre-1982, from most but not all of Minnesota’s counties.
Final Decrees of Distribution of Estates are records books that contain a transcription of the final decree distributing the assets of a decedent. This document will normally list which heir or legatee received what portion of the decedent’s real or personal property. Although this document can be very important in identifying the decedent’s heirs, researchers should note that this document does not necessarily include a listing of what happened to all the property of the deceased. The estate administrator may have converted many of the estate’s assets into cash during the probate process. In this case the final decree will show how much cash each heir received. The original final decree normally is filed in the case file. Final decrees are usually arranged within each volume in rough chronological order according to the date that the final decree was issued. Final decrees also may be arranged in several different series depending on the nature of the estate case and the type of decree. Frequently, some final decree records also were included with other types of documents in miscellaneous order books. For certain time periods, final decrees may be separated by testate (decedent died with a valid will) or intestate (decedent died without a valid will) case type. Researchers should study the inventory (finding aid) for the final decree records for a specific county to determine the specific arrangement of the final decrees, the presence of any subsidiary decrees or orders, and the availability of any indexes. The Minnesota Historical Society has final decree records, generally pre-1982, from most but not all of Minnesota’s counties, either in the original or on microfilm.
Insanity Record Books. Frequently, probate courts kept separate “insanity” books. These books recorded a summary of the mental competency cases that came before the court and frequently included a detailed medical evaluation of the individual whose competency was being questioned. If declared to be not competent to conduct one’s own affairs, an individual may have been committed to a state hospital. These insanity records may assist the researcher in searching further in other records. Insanity records, frequently dated before 1920, are available for a substantial number of counties. Access to certain information may be restricted.
This leaflet, and the finding aids for the records, use the terms “insanity” and “insane” because those were the terms used when the records were created and are the terms that appear on the records.
Additional Record Books. Occasionally, additional record books of the probate courts are retained in the Society’s collections. These books can include:
- inventories of the assets of estates, frequently termed “inventory and appraisement records”;
- letter records, appointing specific individuals as administrators of an estate;
- appointment books, appointing administrators or guardians;
- order books, reproducing administrative orders filed in a case file;
- guardianship records, appointing guardians for minor children or for an adult with diminished mental capacity; and
- minute books, containing brief entries of the daily proceedings before the court.
These specific series vary greatly from county to county and generally exist only for the nineteenth century.
Research Use Tips
The first step in using probate court records is to determine in which county a specific action occurred. Usually this would be the county of residence at the time of death. Probate actions, however, could occur in other counties or states where real property was owned.
Estate case files are normally opened shortly after the death of the decedent. In certain cases, however, files may not be opened for several years or even decades, especially if a spouse survived. In some instances probate case files were never opened because the deceased did not own real estate or did not have sufficient personal property to require court oversight of the estate.
Actions or decisions of the probate court may be appealed, usually to the district court in the respective county. The appeal file, if extant, may contain additional information about the individuals in the case. Such appeals may involve contestation of a will, disputing a financial claim filed against the estate, or a determination of the validity of a purported heir. The probate case file usually will give some evidence that the case resulted in an appeal to a higher court.
Most probate court records in the Minnesota Historical Society are open to unrestricted use. Certain case files or record types, especially relating to insanity cases less than 75 years old, have restricted access and special access procedures. Juvenile Court actions also have restricted access. The staff of the library can assist patrons with these special conditions.