A Survey of Probate Records in the Decatur County, Georgia Courthouse

by Gail Rich Nestor, Smyrna, GA on May 13, 2006




       The Decatur County Probate Court, subject of this survey, is located in Bainbridge, Georgia, in the Southwest part of the state.  The courthouse building is at the corner of West and Water Streets and the probate office is at the North end of the building.


       Within the probate office, there is a small room where all the county’s probate records are stored.  A sign-in sheet hangs on the door to the room, requesting the researcher’s name, city and state, and date of visit.  All records are accessible to the public, including genealogy researchers, and the staff is very friendly and helpful.  A copier is available in the office for $0.25 per copy.  Cameras and laptops are allowed as well.


       The collection of probate records starts in 1824, just after the formation of Decatur County, which was carved from the Southern half of Early County.  All probate records have been bound into books and no loose papers exist.  Rather than being stored in probate packets where all records for a particular estate are contained in a single file, Decatur County’s probate records have, until recently, been bound into separate books, according to the type of record.


Each set of books holds a collection of a single type of record for a particular date range.  For example, one set of books contains all guardian bond records through all date ranges, and another set contains inventories and appraisements.  A full range of probate issues is covered by these books, including: wills and probate proceedings, administrators’ bonds, letters of testamentary, inventory & appraisements, estate sales, guardianship bonds and letters (both temporary and permanent), administrators’ and guardians’ annual returns, and letters of dismission for guardians and administrators.  A comprehensive list of the holdings of the office is provided in Attachment A, and the holdings are described in more detail in the following paragraphs.


       Although some of the books are not labeled adequately on the spine or cover and some do not appear to be completely sequential, no books are known to be missing from this collection, with one exception.  The first will book, Book A, contained wills from 1823-1873.  It was removed without permission from this collection several years ago.  Fortunately, the will book had been previously microfilmed and is on file at the Georgia Archives.  Also, the names of the persons whose wills were contained in the missing book are listed in the General Index described below.


A large book labeled “General Index to Proceedings of Estates for 1824” serves as a finding aid for researchers.  The entries in this book are generally sorted alphabetically by last name of the deceased, although it has recently been discovered that a few entries have been indexed according to the name of the executor or administrator of the estate.  The entry for each probate case provides the name and date of death of the deceased, the name of the administrator, executor, and/or guardian of the estate, and the date the estate was filed.  In addition, all proceedings filed under that party’s name are listed, and the specific book and page number for each record are provided.  The books appear to cover estates up until 1941.

Starting in 1877, books known as “Docket Books,” index all probate records through the current date.  Therefore, some overlap exists between the previously mentioned General Index and the earlier dated Docket Books (those from 1877 to 1941).  Docket Books A-F (1877-1991), show the attorney’s name, the name of the parties (deceased and/or administrator/executor), the guardians (if any), the nature of the case, and the date the order was granted.  Starting in 1991, the books also provide the attorney’s name, the nature of the case, the location of the document, and the estate number of the filing.


       Searches at the Cobb County and the Decatur County, Georgia libraries, as well as the Georgia Archives and the internet, have revealed no known book containing abstracts of any of Decatur County’s probate records.  However, an index to all of Decatur County’s wills (even those wills from the missing will book), can be found in the book, Decatur County, Georgia, Past and Present.[1]


In addition to the books of probate proceedings, the minute books of the Inferior Court start in 1824.  The minute books also contain many probate-related records and these records are listed in the General Index under the relevant surname.  By about 1989, most probate-related records other than wills began being recorded solely in the minute books rather than in the separate books for each type of proceeding. These recently merged records include the petitions for probate, inventories and appraisements, sale of property, years support, dismissions of probate, bonds, and guardianship records.


On July 1, 2005, a law was passed requiring courts to place the petitions for guardianship and/or conservatorship, with all proceedings attached, in a separate locked book. No access to these newly created public records is granted unless the court is presented with a petition or an order to produce these records.


One other aid available to Decatur County researchers is a nearly complete set of bound volumes of the county’s newspaper, The Bainbridge Post-SearchLight. The issues start in 1869 and continue through the present day. The only issues missing are those from 1877 to 1880 and from 1912.


[1] Decatur County Historical Society, compiler, Decatur County, Georgia, Past and Present, 1823-1991, Roswell, Georgia: WH Wolfe Associates, 1991, Appendix A: 419-429.