Court records provide a rich source of information for historians and genealogists. When individuals intersect with the legal system plentiful documentation often follows, some of it very informative.
In this issue we take a look at some prime examples.
“ARE YOU MY MOTHER?”—MINNESOTA ADOPTIONS
The adoption process—defined today as the transfer by birth parents through the court system of all their parental rights to non-biological parents—can be a challenging aspect of researching family history. The legal documents created during an adoption may contain information about the adopted individual, their birth parents, and their adoptive parents.
Under Minnesota state law, however, adoption records are closed for 100 years from the date of adoption. Records that are less than 100 years old may be viewed only with a court order from the judge of the district court in which the adoption occurred. You can find the official form to apply for permission to see an adoption record, titled Petition for Access to Confidential or Sealed File and Order, on the Minnesota Judicial Branch government website. If a request to view a confidential record is granted by the appropriate district court judge, and the Minnesota Historical Society Library holds the adoption record, a copy of the approved court order must be provided to Library staff in order to access the records.
As civil case files adoptions are kept in order by case file number—not by name or date. Most indexes to case files are still held by the district court administrator. If the MHS Library does hold a copy of a case file index for a particular district court, it is helpful to remember that adoption files are frequently indexed under "I" for "In the matter of the adoption of…", instead of the involved parties’ surnames.
If a case file index is not available at the Library, there are other methods of locating a case file number. Judgment books, or judgment records, contain a transcript of the judgment from most civil cases for which a formal judgment was issued and may include a reference to the case file number. Frequently these volumes are indexed, and again it is helpful to remember to search the index for a judgment book under “I” for “In the matter of the adoption…” The majority of judgment books for Minnesota district courts are available at the Minnesota Historical Society.
Another helpful district court record is the Registers of Actions, frequently separated into registers of civil actions and registers of criminal actions. These registers contain a record of the opening of each case and of each document filed in the case. Frequently the registers include the case file number, thereby providing an alternative reference to the case file indexes. Although the register entries are brief and generally contain little data, they provide a framework for the history of the case, its participants, and whether or not it proceeded through court action to a resolution. Many registers of actions volumes have their own indexes within each volume. A few counties have transferred their registers of actions to the Minnesota Historical Society, either in the original or on microfilm.
All to frequently marriages have ended in separation or divorce. Even in the 19th Century they were not uncommon. Like adoption records, divorce files appear in the civil case files of district courts and are arranged by file number. The same sources can be used to identify the file. Unlike adoptions, divorces are public records—although some counties have retained them.
A divorce file usually includes a "complaint" from the aggrieved party, and sometimes a reply. The most useful document is the "finding of fact and judgment," which summarizes the case and outlines any settlement. This statement can include the date and place of marriage, names of children and place of birth. Affidavits of people acquainted with the case are often interesting as well. Transcripts of testimony are rarely included.
Probate courts are separate institutions from Civil and Criminal Courts. They are concerned primarily with property and estate matters of deceased persons. These courts also dealt with the placement of orphans or abandoned children and the commitment of the mentally ill to state asylums.
Case Files are the major records created by the probate courts. They contain copies of each document filed in a probate action. In an estate action, the file may contain documents requesting an appointment of an administrator; 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 to heirs.
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.
Case files are normally filed in numerical order. 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. Case files not available at MHS should be available in the District Court in the respective county.
Registers of Action contain a record 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 with the case file number thereby providing an alternative to a separate index to the case files. Although the register entries are brief, they provide a framework for the history of each case and its participants.
Will Books contain a transcript of each will approved by the Probate Court and entered into the court record. Will books are arranged chronologically according to the date in which the will was entered into the court record, usually—but by not 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, earlier versions were superceded. The will recorded in the will book does not include 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 of Minnesota’s counties.