Dying with a valid will is unfortunately not universal. Non-land owning individuals often do not write wills while others postpone it until it is too late. Dying without a will is called “intestate.” For genealogists looking for death dates or the names of spouses and children, the lack of a will can complicate research. Fortunately, probate records also include intestate records thereby providing an alternative source of this information.
Some standard rules of inheritance exist. If contemporary people die without children, their estate passes to their spouses. If there is not a spouse, the estate passes to parents and siblings. In some states, lines of descent go further to cousins while in others, it ends. If one or more child is deceased, the child’s share of the deceased parent’s estate will be divided among the other survivors. Illegitimate children may always inherit from their mothers but only from their fathers if the fathers acknowledged their children’s paternity in writing.
This stands in contrast to the nineteenth century when widows were not considered the owners of their property. Instead, their entire household could be sold away from them. After the Civil War, North Carolina’s widows were allotted money from their deceased husbands’ estates for their support. This is called “widow’s allowances.” Estate probates and household evaluations were made so the court knew how much to allot to the widow annually. These probates often listed the number of underaged children and listed possessions thereby giving a fuller understanding of the family’s daily life. Their existence also can provide the date of the husband’s death.
The Appalachian Collection owns microfilmed copies of Appalachian North Carolina court records, including probate records and wills.
Researchers seeking alternative sources for daily life, children’s names, and death dates of individuals without wills may find success in church records, censuses (including mortality) and the Social Security Administration’s Master Death File.
Reading handwriting can be difficult particularly because previous generations used different symbols than are currently used. The library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill maintains a Writing Guide for researchers reading documents dating from the 18th century forward. For those researching European handwriting styles, Great Britain’s National Archives has “Palaeography: Reading Old Handwriting, 1500 - 1800: A Practical Online Tutorial” and Brigham Young University maintains Script Tutorials for Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.
For more reading
Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc: Baltimore, 1974.