When researching your family history, it is inevitable that at some point, you will use records which can only be found at the local courthouse. Patrons embarking on family history research should make the local courthouse their second stop AFTER talking to all living family members.
Since most genealogical research is organized along county lines, researchers have a vested interest in knowing what records are available at American county courthouses. To effectively proceed in their research, it is beneficial to have a listing of addresses and phone numbers for the areas under investigation, and be knowledgeable about the coverage and availability of key courthouse records such as probate, land and vital records, names of courthouse officials, and timely advice on the whole range of services available at the courthouse.
Courthouses contain a wide variety of records which serve as a historical backdrop of our society. Up to the turn of the century, we find that the most universal characteristic of American society was the ownership of personal property, such as real estate, slaves, or farm equipment, to name a few examples. Property records, along with the probate file, tend to be the profitable records a genealogist can obtain. Courthouses are the normal custodians of these records. Historically, the courthouse was where our ancestors handled matters involving the recording of property ownership, deeds, bills-of-sale, leases, contracts, and a host of other legal matters which affected their daily lives. Most courthouses are under county jurisdiction. Others are under jurisdictions such as district, township, state, or federal.
No one standard exists for record keeping procedures in courthouses. Some have made efforts to make research user friendly. They have eliminated the steel boxes with razor sharp edges, flattened the original bulky boxes that weighed between 50 and 100 lbs, and store papers in clearly defined file folders. Registers and index rolls have been created and laminated. Modern easy-to-use ladders with a browsing shelf may be available so patrons do not have to attempt lifting the old heavy metal boxes which could easily cut someone. In others, due to a lack of funds, personnel, or interest, the burden will be completely on you.
Some researchers are reluctant to attempt using courthouse files. They are content with using whatever sources they find at the LDS Family History Centers (since they have microfilmed many old district; municipal; state; and township records) or rely on state archives. This philosophy can be successful up to a point; however, some researchers who followed this course of action have later realized their research was incomplete or inaccurate because of this strategy. Our governmental structure is not made up of over 3,000 sovereign counties or 50 sovereign states. It is important to realize that counties, townships, municipalities, and cities are all sub-divisions of the state. The boundaries of counties, districts, and townships, as well as officials, court structures, and record keeping procedures are all functions of the states. There will always be some unique peculiarities, but the general policies will apply to all counties within the state. If you learn how to do research in one state, you can follow the same basic procedures in another.
Until the early 1920's, courthouse fires were quite common. While common stereotypes Courthouse Research--Page 2
may identify this with the South and the Civil War, it was a frequent occurrence throughout the country when wood was the primary method of construction. In spite of these fires, one should never give up the search. Since records were compiled by hand, the various books were frequently in locations other than the courthouse. After fires occurred, the records could be reconstructed after the fact as people died or became involved in litigation. This is especially true of probate, property, and tax records. When a clerk tells you over the telephone or by mail that the courthouse burned in 1865 and 1900, they may be completely accurate in their statements. However, I have heard experienced genealogists make the following observations:
1. If you ask some follow-up questions, you may get some different answers. Which records were destroyed? Which records were saved, and where are they stored? Were there some independent agencies that did not store their records in the courthouse?
The bottom line is ask the right questions.
2. Some researchers simply go to the courthouse and ask where the given type of records are stored. They do not mention years or simply say they want to exam all the records prior to 1900. Don't assume the clerks know for certain what records are available. It is totally accurate to assume some records which were actually destroyed in the original fire, may have been reconstructed from various sources at a later date (even if they are not as complete as the originals).
When you reach a stage in your research where the next step will involve visiting a courthouse, there are several steps you can take before your visit which can make the trip worthwhile:
1. Check with your local library, LDS Family History Center, or state archives to see if a publication exists which contains an inventory of the microfilmed or published list of county courthouse records for the state.
2. Check to see if the state in question has a historical commission. If so, request a listing of county historians. An excellent source to consult is the "Genealogists Address Book" by Elizabeth Petty Bentley. More information on this book is included in the bibliography in your handouts on Who Has What Record and Land Records: Their Genealogical Value. Not all counties will have a designated historian. If the county in question has a designated individual, they could save you a significant amount of work. Contact them and discuss what your research goals and objectives are.
3. Contact the courthouse or check with one of the sources listed in the bibliographies on Who Has What Record and Land Records: Their Genealogical Value to verify the hours of operation for the specific days of your visit and costs of research and copying services, if applicable. Many of the sources listed in your bibliographies will give you an overview of what records are held in the courthouses. Inquire as to the need to make an appointment to do research. Does the courthouse offer any assistance with research?
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4. Be aware that in many courthouses space is at a premium. The records you need to research may be scattered throughout several different offices and locations. Be prepared for the possibility of having to visit multiple locations. In most cases, these satellite facilities will be within walking distance.
5. Wear comfortable or throw-away clothing. If the courthouse still uses the old steel boxes, or trans-file boxes which are bulky and can weigh between 50-100 lbs, expect to get filthy. If you have a friend who likes to do physical work, it might be a good idea to have them with you.
6. While courthouses have a variety of records, your first priority should be visiting whichever section handles the recording and registration of deeds. Seasoned researchers say that regardless of what disasters have occurred in courthouses, the deed and land records usually survive when almost everything else is destroyed.
Variations In Record Keeping Practices
New England States:
Maine & Massachusetts. Maine was formed from Massachusetts. Its local governmental structure follows the same pattern as with the other New England states. The King of England induced the people and companies to come to the New World by giving them charters. The proprietors (or board of directors-in modern terms), of these companies with their charters from the King, would in turn grant charters to groups of people to settle townships in the New World. We would call these settlers the town fathers. They, in turn, under the authority of their charters for their townships assumed the right to pass out title of real estate to the individual. They sub-divided their townships just as we sub-divide land today. Each of the original settlers received an inherent right to divisions of property in the townships. He might receive a piece of pasture land, a lot in town on which to build his house, and so on.
As the New England townships were sub-divided and parceled out to the individual, the documents of original title--the land grants--were recorded in the town proprietor's books by the town clerk. Only the town charters are found in state records. The terms town and township can cause confusion when discussing New England. If you ask a New Englander what his home town is, he will name the township. In New England their towns are not villages with post offices, but are rural townships, about six miles long by three or four miles wide. Villages in New England usually bear the name of the township. People doing local research in New England should realize that their ancestors did not necessarily live right in the village but somewhere in the township.
The documents of original title for real estate in New England were all signed by the proprietors of the town, and recorded by town clerks in their record books. Throughout the six New England states, births, marriages, and deaths were also recorded in the respective town clerk's books. As far as deeds, probates, and court records are concerned, we find differences from state Courthouse Research--Page 4
to state. In Maine and Massachusetts, land jurisdiction is on a county basis. If you want deeds, wills, or court cases, you will go to the county courthouses of these two states for these records. None of the other New England states follow this pattern.
Rhode Island. The deeds and other land records are recorded by the town clerk. Each township has its own probate court.
New Hampshire has a date researchers must remember--1769. Prior to that date there was only one recorder for the colony of New Hampshire. All land, court, and probate proceedings were taken care of in the colonial central office. There were some county level courts for criminal and civil cases, but the land and probate records were filed for the whole colony at Dover, New Hampshire. These records are now part of the state archives. As a result researchers find they cannot locate many local records prior to 1769. Starting in 1769, each county of New Hampshire was given the authority to record land and probate records. Court records were also done on a local county basis.
Vermont & Connecticut. These states are twins in terms of records. The Connecticut River was once a super highway. Most of the people in Vermont originated from Connecticut, and the governmental structures copied each other. The land deeds in both are recorded in the office of the local town clerks. One advantage of having records recorded in this manner is that having the land grants, and documents of original title are in the same books. That simplifies a search for property records. Early townships were sparsely populated whereas the county was too populated for a probate court, so they grouped townships together and created the probate district as an intermediate jurisdiction. This can present the genealogist with a unique set of problems:
1. You must know when your township was formed and out of what parent township it was created.
2. You must know when the probate district was formed and out of what parent probate district it came from..
3. You must know the relationship of the county to its parent county. The county records are on a county basis.
The probate districts of those days usually bore the name of the principal township in the district. An example of the confusion involves Litchfield, Connecticut. In the Litchfield area, we find the village of Litchfield; the township of Litchfield; the probate district of Litchfield; and the county of Litchfield. These are four different legal jurisdictions. The township of Litchfield incorporates within its boundaries. The village of Litchfield; but the probate district of Litchfield covers not only the township of Litchfield, but four other townships around Litchfield. You must find out what probate court covered the township of your ancestors before you can hope to find probate records, and the probate court may or may not bear the name of the township.
New York. New York counties are also divided into townships. On rare occasions, researchers have found birth, marriage, and death records in the townships. The big problem in New York is Courthouse Research--Page 5
the town and township one. When our ancestors were asked about their birthplace, they
invariably mentioned the name of the township where he/she was born. The problem is that in New York it is extremely rare to find a village of the same name within the named township. So when you find a record of an ancestor who says he/she was born in Rome, New York, does it mean the township of Rome in Monroe County, or Livingston, or the city of Rome in Utica County. Many researchers would begin in the city of Rome, the only one noted in a state Atlas or Gazetteer, and fail to find any records there. This is a big problem in New York research. There is seldom a village in the township bearing the same name. You must know your jurisdictions before proceeding in your research.
Documents of original title are few in number. Those few that do exist were usually issued by the colonial government of New York, or by the Dutch, or by the state of New York and are in the state archives and library in Albany, New York. Property records are also scarce. Following the Revolutionary War, New York tried to sell itself out of bankruptcy by selling large tracts of land to foreign banking syndicates and private individuals. Some of this land is still in the foreign possession. Some of these land grants were as large as entire counties or groups of counties. Most grants were sold to Dutch and Belgium bankers. The banks speculated and sold their land to private settlers on mortgages. As a result, the various county archives have some mortgage records dating from the middle of the 1700's. New York is the only state where this has occurred. Most of the land transactions in New York during the 1700's and early 1800's were on mortgages and notes. Researchers who search for deeds and not mortgages will have little success. New York did not require that deeds be recorded until 1823.
Probate records are another story. During the colonial days, the colonial governors, appointed by the King, had the powers of surrogate (i.e. serve as probate judges). As a result, probate records for the entire colony were compiled at the Governor's headquarters in Manhattan. All colonial probate records are now on file at New York County Courthouse in Manhattan. Since the Revolutionary War, each county has its own SURROGATE office for probate inquiries. Court records are held at the individual county courthouses. Marriage documents were not kept by county officials until 1886. Since that time, the town clerk for each township has the right to issue marriage licenses. Prior to 1886, you must depend on church records. Some people because of the confusion with townships, still do try the church route first.
New Jersey. New Jersey was once two separate colonies: East Jersey and West Jersey. By the authority of the King, the proprietors of East and West Jersey had the authority to issue land grants. The documents of sale were the original documents of title. After the Revolutionary War, all of the colonies as they emerged as individual states (with the exception of New Jersey) forced many of their proprietors and royal governors to leave but enforcement varied. New Jersey legalized their positions. The east/west division still exists today. These proprietorships are privately owned by many of the descendants of these men. Access to these documents may be costly. The East Jersey office is in Perth Amboy, and the West Jersey office is located in the city of Burlington.
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Deeds are another split situation. For the colonial period there are few deeds in existence, and these are kept in the state capitol in Trenton. Since the colonial era each county has them on file. Probate records are similar in organization to New York. The governor was the probate authority and all colonial probate files are in the state capitol in Trenton. The county surrogate offices have a complete set of probate files for the period since the Revolutionary War. During the colonial period, the governor had the power to perform and issue marriage licenses; however it was not uncommon for people to get married without going through any official ceremony or getting a license. There are 30,000 colonial marriages on file at the capitol. Fortunately for the researcher, most of the people in New jersey went to churches that believed in infant baptism. These churches are excellent sources of birth and marriage records. Town clerks also have birth, marriage, and death records in their old books. This tradition is a carryover from the many settlers of central New jersey who came from Connecticut by way of New York.
Delaware and Pennsylvania. The government of these two states had a common beginning in the colonial days. Documents of original title for real estate in both states are on file at the respective state archives, not in local courthouses. Deeds, probate records, and court records can be found in the courthouses. Neither state kept marriage records until the late 1800's when the courts began licensing marriages. Churches were the custodian of christenings, marriages, and burial information.
Maryland. Documents of original title are kept at the Hall of Records in Annapolis, Maryland. Deeds, probates, court records, and marriages are all in the county courthouses. Marriage records are incomplete prior to 1782, when the state mandated marriage bonding and began enforcement procedures.
The Virginia's and Kentucky. Because all three were originally part of Virginia, record keeping is similar. Documents of original title are kept at the respective state archives. West Virginia was founded in 1864. Land grants issued for land in the area prior to 1864, will be in the Virginia State Archives in Richmond. Deeds, probates, court records, and marriage records are kept in the county courthouses.
North Carolina and Tennessee. Tennessee was formed from North Carolina in 1792. The original documents of title are on file at the state archives in Raleigh. Deeds have been recorded at the county courthouse level for both states. Probate records are organized in the same manner, except that during the colonial period, the governor of North Carolina had some jurisdictional power under probate law. As a result, some probate records can be found in Raleigh.
Tennessee land grants are at the state archives in Nashville. Deeds, probates, and court records are with the respective counties. Tennessee did not require counties to license marriages until 1838, although some counties were doing so on their own initiative.
South Carolina. When doing research in this state, you had better consult a history source which covers the period in question. Jurisdictional problems exist everywhere. Prior to 1769, all court records were filed in Charleston County. All court actions were brought to trial in Charleston Courthouse Research--Page 7
County regardless of where the problem originated. In 1769, the state was divided into six large judicial districts which were given the power to handle minor civil and criminal cases. In 1798, the six large jurisdictional districts were sub-divided into 21 smaller districts. These 21 smaller districts actually became counties in 1868. "County Type" records are organized into these county districts.
The following question comes up on a regular basis: What happened to the large jurisdictional district after the sub-dividing took place? Whichever small districts happened to be lucky enough to inherit the courthouse from the large district, they inherited the records. Because of fires and neglect, many of the original records prior to the 1800's have been lost. What few exist have been reconstructed in court records following the settlements of estates.
Probate records are another problem. Up to 1785, the probate records were all filed in Charleston County. Thereafter, this jurisdiction was given to magistrates functioning within the large jurisdictional districts. These records are now on file within the county courthouses. Deeds prior to 1783, were recorded in Charleston County. In 1783, recording was transferred to the six large jurisdictional districts. In 1798, this function was transferred to the 21 sub-districts which later became counties.
Types of Records You Can Find In a Courthouse
Birth Certificates: Most states and municipalities have placed restrictions on access to birth certificates. Access is usually limited to direct line descendants such as a son or daughter. Other parties may be required to present a court order. Some states and municipalities also require proof of death in the form of a death certificate for parties other than direct line descendants..
2) Date of birth.
3) Place of birth.
4) Name of father.
5) Age of father.
6) Occupation of father.
7) Maiden name of mother.
8) Age of mother.
9) Home address of family.
10) Number of children born to this woman.
11) Number of children now living.
Court Records: Court records pertain to civil actions as well as criminal cases. Criminal cases are initiated by the government against one or more persons for an offense against the public. Civil cases are initiated by one person against another to enforce a right or redress a wrong. In some times and places civil actions have been divided into actions in equity and actions in law. Where separate courts have handled these two types of civil actions, the equity court was often known as the chancery court. In the U.S. there is a dual court system, the federal court system and a separate court system for each state. Both systems include trial courts and appellate courts. State court systems sometimes include inferior courts that are empowered to dispose of only minor offenses without trial (traffic, small claims, child support). Researchers using court records must be aware that a particular locality may lie within the jurisdiction of a number of courts: inferior, trial, appellate; criminal and civil; law and equity; state and federal.
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Civil and criminal actions generate many documents. Among the most frequent are the following:
1. Complaint filed by the plaintiff stating the facts upon which he brings his case.
2. Defendant's rebuttle.
3. Depositions and affidavits.
4. Trial testimony from plaintiff, defendant, and witnesses.
5. Judgment or decree of the court.
6. Appeal documents.
Dockets or journals listing chronologically those cases brought before a court, serve as references to case files. These books index only the names of the plaintiff and defendant. Sometimes a docket will also include a brief abstract of a case, but these abstracts can contain errors. The case file is your most accurate source.
Court minute and order books are maintained by the Clerk of Courts. These include brief day-by-day entries detailing all matters bought before the court. They include, in addition to the names of plaintiffs and defendants, names of jurors, witnesses, judges, legal representatives, type of case, and judgment of courts. Court minute books may also contain information that is not judicial in nature: For example: county courts in Virginia had executive, legislative, and judicial functions. Early Virginia court books may show a list of tithables, granting of ordinary licenses, appointment of persons to survey a road, recommendations to the governor for the appointment of tobacco inspectors, an order for a man to pay for the support of an illegitimate child, among other things.
Some of the most common civil actions are:
1. Adoptions. Massachusetts was the first state to enact a formal adoption statute in 1851. Genealogical information can vary from state to sate. Some records have been amended to exclude any reference to the biological parents. In recent decades, laws were passed that sealed the records. Only a court order would allow access to a particular record. Indexes to adoption records, as a rule, have been closed to researchers. There has been movement towards allowing some form of access by adult adoptees to their original birth or adoption records. These include access to the original birth certificate, access to court adoption records, contact with a member of the birth family through an intermediary who secures that person's consent to such contact, and a registry system in which names of birth parents and adult adoptees willing to have contact are matched.
2. Divorces. These records usually contain the names of the two parties, their place of residence, date and place of marriage, names and ages of their children, and information about their property.
3. Name changes. An ancestor who changed his name can complicate your genealogical research. If you suspect this may have happened, check court records to see if the name change took place officially through the courts.
4. Naturalizations. Documents relating to the naturalization of aliens can be found in a variety of courts, both federal and state.
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Death Certificate: The death certificate generally has the least number of restrictions on its availability. In some states and municipalities, all information on the death certificate is public record. Others restrict information concerning cause of death to direct line descendants only, while everything else is public record.
1) Date and place of death.
2) Home address.
3) Marital status.
4) Name of spouse.
5) Date of birth.
7) Age of decedent.
9) Years in the U.S.
10) Name of father.
11) Birthplace of father.
12) Maiden name of mother.
13) Birthplace of mother.
14) Location of cemetery.
15) Name and address of undertaker or funeral home.
16) Name and address of physician.
17) Cause of death.
18) Length of illness.
Deed Records: Whenever a courthouse fire occurred, the first priority in reconstructing records was always given to any type of land records. In many cases, a directive would go out to the populace to bring proof of land ownership to the local courthouse so a copy could be made. In other cases, this reconstruction would take place upon the death of the landholder during the probate of his estate. Deeds have always been indexed. Deeds were signed by the seller, who gave it to the buyer as proof of sale. The buyer would take it to the courthouse where either the seller or witnesses came into court to verify that the grantor signed it. This created a notation in the court minutes ( a book recording the day-to-day activities of the court) that it was acknowledged, and the court ordered the transfer of property to be recorded. Since all recording had to be done in longhand, it was a typical occurrence for the original deed to remain with the Clerk of the Court anywhere from several days to weeks, until the clerk had a chance to transcribe it into one of the deed books. Only after this process was complete was the original deed returned to the new property owner.
One note of caution: Land transfers were not always recorded even though they were supposed to be by law. The land may have been inherited rather than transferred by deed, or deeds among family members may not have been taken to the courthouse in order to save the recording fee. In this case, you may need to continue searching for years after the original purchase, when the land was finally sold out of the family. It is also possible that the land may never have left the family, and the deed was never recorded until the 1920's when local governments began to enforce the laws. Usually this occurs only in isolated rural settings.
Other local land records useful to genealogists include:
1. Mortgages: Document by which a person pledges his real property or a portion of it as security for payment of a debt. In earlier times a mortgage was a form of conveyance similar to a deed of trust. More recently it is merely a lien or encumbrance on the property and does not constitute a transfer of title. The two parties to a mortgage are known as a mortgagor (borrower) and mortgagee (holder of mortgage).
2. Lease: Contract by which the owner of real property agrees to give possession of it to another for a stated period of time in return for consideration. The two parties to a lease are known as Courthouse Research--Page 10 lessor (owner) and lessee (renter).
3. Bill of sale: Document similar to a deed, used to convey title to major items of personal property such as slaves and livestock. Such documents are usually recorded with local land records.
4. Plat and plat books: A plat is an official drawing of the boundaries of a tract of land. Original survey plats can be found filed with land entries and land grants in some courthouses in the state-land states. Plats prepared subsequently can be found recorded in deed books, with probate records, and bound in over-sized volumes. Plats of individual tracts of land were drawn to settle boundary disputes and divide a tract of land among heirs. Other plats depict the lots into which new towns or subdivisions have been subdivided.
Many courthouses have one or more books containing township maps for the entire county.
Marriage Licenses: If your parents are deceased, a copy of a marriage license is usually available to direct line descendants such as a son or daughter. Records prior to the 1940's are usually available on an unrestricted basis. Each state and individual counties have their own rules. Licenses usually contain the following information:
1) Name, home address, age, birthplace, occupation, name of father, maiden name of mother of the groom.
2) Name, home address, age, birthplace, name of father, maiden name of mother of the bride.
3) Date and address where ceremony was performed.
4) Name and address of Minister or Official who performed ceremony.
5) Names and addresses of witnesses.
6) Signatures of bride, groom, and witnesses.
Naturalization Records: Prior to 1906, naturalization proceedings were handled mostly at the local municipality and county court level. Each court had its own methods and rules regarding naturalization procedures, no matter what the federal statutes stipulated. Although this information was supposed to be forwarded in its entirety to Washington, it was not until after 1906 with the creation of the new Department of Immigration and Naturalization Service that this rule was enforced. Some of these records will be on file with the Clerk of the Court. Information recorded prior to 1906 was compiled on index card formats. Records compiled after 1906 have been compiled on forms supplied by the INS itself. Information compiled on these types of records usually include the following information:
1) Family name.
2) Given name.
3) Court where naturalization proceeding took place.
4) Petition number.
5) Date of naturalization.
6) Volume of bundle.
7) Page number.
8) Copy of record number.
9) Address of naturalized person.
11) Birth date.
13) Former nationality.
14) Port of arrival.
15) Date of arrival.
16) Address and occupations of witnesses to the naturalization proceedings.
Probate Records: Laws governing probate matters vary from state to state. You should consult Courthouse Research--Page 11
the official state statutes for specific information. However, the process by which an estate is settled does follow the same general pattern and the contents of probate files will be similar in nature. If the deceased left a valid will, the probate file should include documents with all or some of the following information:
1. Will: Legally executed document that provides for the disposition of a person's property after his death.
2. Petitions for probate or applications for letters of administration: Documents which initiate the probate case. They usually include the decedent's date and place of death. The application for
letters of administration may also include the name and place of residence of the surviving spouse and the names and degrees of relationship of all next of kin (and some potential surprises)!.
3. Letters testamentary or letters of administration: These documents direct which directs an executor or administrator to proceed with the settlement process. This document contains little genealogical information other than when the will was admitted to probate.
4. Executor's or Administrator's Bonds: In many cases, the person/s who signed on are related to or were close friends of the decedent.
5. Will contests and proofs of heirship: A contested will or matter which requires the heirs to prove their relationship to the decedent can be a goldmine of information. All heirs are parties in these proceedings.
6. Appointment of guardian: This document names the decedent's minor children and the guardian to be appointed. The guardian may be the surviving parent or another close relative. In early American history if a guardian was "appointed" it usually indicated the child or children were under the age of 14. If the child or children were allowed a guardian of their own choosing, it was usually an indication of someone over the age of 14.
7. Inventories: This document is more common with estates where the decedent left no valid will, but some wills also list inventories. Such a document usually indicated the date of death, and complete listing of property to be disbursed. Information on this document can also give clues as to the economic status of the decedent.
8. Sale bills: List of the decedent's property sold at public auction along with buyers and purchase prices. Buyers often included family members and relatives, although the relationship is seldom stated.
9. Assignment of dower: The widow's dower is her claim to a portion of her deceased husband's estate during her lifetime for her and her children's support. This document gives her name, which may or may not be mentioned in the will.
10. Accounts and final settlement: Records of debts, disbursements, and assets remaining for distribution are filed with the court. When an estate is settled over a number of years, there may be annual accounts. Listings of disbursements and advances made to the widow or children sometimes provide useful information.
11.Decree of distribution: This document shows how the estate was divided by the heirs. Documents issued in more recent decades usually show the names, addresses, and degrees of relationship for each heir or recipient.
12 Receipts: Written acknowledgments of the receipt of portions of the estate by each person who received something from the estate.