Frequently Asked Questions
about
Madison County Estate Records

 

What kind of Estate Records can I find online?
What is an Abstract?
Where can I look at the actual wills?
What if my ancestor didn't leave a will?
What other types of estate records are available?
Help!  My ancestor's will doesn't name any children!
Why was my ancestor written out of the will?
What else can I learn from probate records?

How can estate records help with slave research?

List of microfilmed Madison County Estate Records


What kind of estate records can I find online?

All of the wills in Madison County Will Books A and B (1812-1897) have been abstracted and are online here at Madison County GAGenWeb.  A list of Testators (people who wrote the wills) is included at the beginning of each book.

The Index to the Will Abstracts includes every name that appears in each will, and refers you to the Will Book and page number where each name appears.

In addition to the abstracts, you will also find dozens of complete wills that have been transcribed and contributed by researchers.


What is an abstract?

An abstract is a summary or paraphrasing of a document (as opposed to a transcription, which is a word-for-word copy). Will abstracts contain the "important" data from the will, such as the names of heirs and executors, while leaving out repetitive phrases and the standard paragraphs that appear in most wills. The Madison County will abstracts are actually quite detailed, including most of the will as it was written. However, if you have a serious interest in a particular will, you should not hesitate to view the actual document.


Where can I look at the actual wills?

Wills can be viewed in the Probate office at the Madison County Courthouse, where they were recorded in the following record books:

Will Book A... 1813 – 1841
Will Book B... 1842 – 1896
Will Book... 1897 – 1922
Will Book C... Est. May 1913 - Oct 1969
Will Book D... Est. Oct 27, 1971 - Sept 18, 1975
Will Book E...  Est. April 3, 1962 - Sept 4, 1969

For a small fee per page, you can order a copy of a will by writing to the Madison County Probate Court.  Including the name, date, book and page number in your request will make the clerk’s job easier.  Write to:

Madison County Probate Court
P.O. Box 207
Danielsville, GA 30633
(706) 795-3354

Will Books A, B and 1897-1922 have been microfilmed, and appear together on one roll of film. The film is available at the Georgia Department of Archives and History in Atlanta (GDAH), and can also be ordered through your local LDS (Mormon) Family History Center.


What if my ancestor didn't leave a will?

Not everyone wrote a will; but most people owned some kind of property when they died, and something had to be done with it.  In accordance with Georgia law, the estate of someone who died intestate (without a will) was divided equally between his/her legal heirs.  This process resulted in a lot of paperwork, and these documents can provide a wealth of information to researchers.  Wills are only one part of the probate process, and many different records were created for all estates, whether there was a will or not.


What other types of estate records are available?

The following records can be found at the Madison County courthouse, and are also available on microfilm at the Georgia Archives and through the LDS Family History Center system.   See below for a detailed inventory of available microfilm.

Letters of Administration
Folks who wrote a will usually appointed an executor/executrix to manage their affairs after their death.  In the absence of a will, it was up to the court to find someone to take on these duties.  An administrator (often an adult child or other relative) was appointed by the court to oversee the maintenance and distribution of the estate. The court issued Letters of Administration, granting the administrator the authority to take charge of the estate. The administrator was required to post a bond, assuring that he would perform his duties as required by law.

Guardianship Records
If minor children were involved, a guardian was appointed to manage their shares of the estate until they arrived at legal age. Children were often referred to as "orphans", even if the mother was still living.  If both parents were dead, or the widow was unable to care for the child, the guardian would take charge of the child’s "person and property", becoming responsible for the child’s care and upbringing as well as managing his or her inheritance.  It was often a male relative who took guardianship of the child’s estate.   Children over the age of 14 were allowed to select their own guardian. Guardians were required to post a bond and make annual reports of the child’s estate.  These records contain the child's full name, the name of the deceased parent, and sometimes the child's age or other information.

Inventories and Sales
To determine the value of the estate, an inventory was made of the decedent's belongings and a value assigned to each item.  Appraisers went through the home and outbuildings room by room, listing slaves, livestock, farm equipment, furniture and household items such as books, kitchen utensils, and bedding.  Inventories were extremely detailed, and can provide an interesting glimpse into an ancestor’s home life.  A sale was often held as a way to liquidate the estate and provide cash to distribute among the heirs or to pay off debts.  The sale record shows who purchased each item.

Annual Returns
Some estates were settled quickly, but the probate process could go on for several years – even decades – especially if there was a widow or minor children involved.  To ensure that the estate was being properly administered, the executor or administrator  was required to present the court with a yearly accounting of the estates’ financial activity.  This included any payments made to the heirs... and here’s where it gets good!  As each heir received his legacy, or distributive share of the estate, he signed a receipt  which was filed with the annual returns.  These receipts, or vouchers, often state the relationship of the heir to the decedent, and sometimes the heir's place of residence.  Thus, the annual returns can provide a complete list of children or grandchildren.  Other items found in the annual returns might include receipts for medical bills, burial expenses, ordinary living expenses for the surviving family, travel expenses, and records of income brought in to the estate through the lease of land or slaves, or the sale of surplus crops.  Once the estate was completely settled, the administrator or executor filed a Final Return and requested Letters of Dismissal, relinquishing his duties to the estate.

 


Help!  My ancestor's will doesn't name any children!

It's wonderful to find a long, detailed will, naming every child and grandchild and clearly spelling out the relationships.  But some of our ancestors liked to keep things short and sweet, leaving everything to "my beloved wife and children," without naming any names.  Not to despair.  The same strategy can be used in these cases as with ancestors who left no will.  By studying the annual returns and guardianship records (see above), it is often possible to uncover a complete list of heirs. 


Why was my ancestor "written out" of the will?

Some parents gave a detailed list of bequests to certain children, while other children are markedly absent from the will, or received only a token inheritance.   This didn't necessarily mean that there had been a family squabble or that a child had been "disowned."  Some children may have already received gifts of land or property, or financial assistance for schooling or to pay off debts.  Married daughters may have received a dower, while their unmarried sisters had not.  In these cases, the will was the parent's way of making all the children equal. 


What else can I learn from probate records?

The wording of wills and the details in other estate records can provide many helpful clues for researchers.  Some of the hints to explore include...

Cows and Calves
Daughters who were given a Cow and Calf, or a Bed and Bedstead, were often unmarried, as these were the typical gifts given to daughters at marriage.

Sons and Daughters
Children were usually listed in wills from oldest to youngest.  Alternatively, sons were listed first in birth order, followed by daughters.  This wasn't always the case, but when combined with other records, it can be helpful in determining the ages of the children.

Deceased Children
When a child had predeceased the parent, the grandchildren usually inherited their parent's share of the estate.  Some wills clearly state the relationships ("My grandson Thomas Smith, son of my deceased daughter Mary Smith").  Other wills simply list the grandchildren right along with the children, without stating the relationship, and this can lead the researcher to mistakenly assume that a grandchild is another child.  Studying the annual returns or guardianship records can sometimes clarify these relationships.  See "My Distributive Share."

My Distributive Share
When an heir received his share of the estate, he signed a receipt showing the amount he was paid.  Sometimes, the receipt includes a phrase that indicates the heir's relationship to the decedent, as when John Smith received $100 "as my distributive share of my father's estate."  But sometimes no relationship is noted, as when Jane Brown was paid $100 "as a legatee of the estate of Thomas Brown."  Was Jane a daughter, or a grandchild?  By comparing the amounts received by all the heirs, it can be possible to tell children from grandchildren.  For example... if Sarah, Stephen and Samuel each received $100, while Mary and Matthew each got $50.00, we can conclude that Mary and Matthew are the two children of a deceased child and are splitting their parent's share of the estate.

Coming of Age
Minor children could not own property, and thus did not receive their inheritance until they reached legal age (21) or married (in the case of daughters who married under 21).  By studying the annual returns, the researcher can note when a child first received his legacy, implying that he had celebrated his 21st birthday.  In the case of a minor daughter who married, her husband could claim her share of the estate on her behalf.

Natural Life or Widowhood
Many husbands left their estates to their wives during her "natural life or widowhood", directing that the property be sold or divided among the children after the wife died or remarried.  The annual returns can reveal when such a sale or division occurred, suggesting a death or marriage date for the widow.  If a widow remarried, she might receive a "child's share" of the estate, or perhaps nothing at all if her late husband so directed.  Incidentally, this was not a jealous husband's way of insuring his wife's fidelity beyond the grave... it was a way of protecting his children's interest in the estate.  In a time when women generally did not own property, her estate was under the complete control of her husband.  Should a future husband be financially irresponsible (or just not a nice guy), the estate could be squandered, leaving nothing for the children.

Land out of Town
Sometimes a record will note that the decedent owned land in another location.  This might indicate a previous residence; or it might be a lot that was won through the one of the Georgia Land Lotteries; or land that was inherited from a relative who lived in that area.  This suggests other records for the researcher to explore.

Friends and Relatives
Wives and children aren't the only people whose names appear in wills.  Wills were signed by witnesses, who were often relatives (but keep in mind that heirs could not be witnesses).  In describing real estate, the testator might mention adjacent landowners, who are also prime suspects as possible kin.  While some testators clearly stated their relationship to their executor, some referred to their executor as "my friend"... but this doesn't rule out the possibility of a family relationship.  Brothers, sons-in-law, uncles and cousins could be considered friends as well as relatives.  Every name that appears in a will should be explored for possible clues.


How can estate records help with slave research?

As part of a slaveowner's estate, slaves were either distributed among the heirs or sold to liquidate the estate.  Records were created in either situation.   By studying the various probate records, it can be possible to trace a slave family through several generations of slaveowners.  The first step is to determine who owned the slave before emancipation.  Many (but certainly not all) slaves adopted their slaveowner's surname, so this is one place to start.  It may be necessary to examine the estate records of every person with that surname.  Another avenue is to study the 1870 census, noting the former slave's neighbors; many former slaves stayed on to work for the same family after the Civil War.  Once the slave owning family has been determined, a study of their ancestry and collateral relatives can be helpful in locating the records that mention slaves.

Wills
Some slaveowners listed every slave in their will, noting which heir was to inherit each slave.  Others gave specific instructions regarding a particular slave, although they may have owned other slaves who weren't named.  Many slaveowners didn't mention slaves in their will, and some didn't leave a will at all.  Whatever the case, wills are only one part of the probate procedure.  Other records exist that can provide a great deal of information regarding slaves, such as those described below.

Inventories
Since slaves were often the most valuable part of a slaveowner's estate, they were usually listed first on estate inventories and appraisements.  Each slave was listed by name, along with his/her value.  Some inventories included each slave's age.  Infants and young children were usually listed together with their mother. 

Sales and Divisions
If a sale was held, the record of sale will note who purchased each slave, and the amount they paid.  If the slaves were to be divided equally among the slaveowner's heirs, they were placed in "lots" of equal value and each heir would draw a lot.   When dividing the slaves into lots, consideration was often (but not always) given to keeping family members together, especially mothers and young children.  These lots and draws were recorded in the Returns and Vouchers books as well as in the Inventories and Sales records.

Annual Returns
After a slaveowner's death, there may have been several years before a division was made of his property.  In the meantime, slaves were sometimes leased out to neighbors or relatives for a specific job.  Since this brought income into the estate, it was recorded in the annual returns.  These records may reveal a slave's special skill or talent, such as carpentry or blacksmithing.

After emancipation, former slaves acquired property that was subject to the same probate procedures.  The first African-American to record a will in Madison County was Cato Ware, who wrote his will in 1871.  (He may be the slave Cato who was willed by Edward Ware to his son Henry Ware in 1837).

 


List of Madison County Estate Records available on Microfilm

The following records appear on microfilm as follows, and are available at the Georgia Department of Archives and History in Atlanta, as well as through your local LDS (Mormon) Family History Center.  Some record books are combined on one roll of film.
The original books can be viewed at the Madison County Courthouse.

Will Book A, 1813-1841
Will Book B, 1842-1897
Will Book, 1897-1922
Letters of Administration and Guardianship, Sep 1856-Oct 1897
Administration Letters, Aug 1889-May 1933
Guardianship Letters, Feb 1899-Dec 1963
Testamentary Letters, May 1890-Mar 1962
Administrator and Guardian Bonds, Dec 1813-Jun 1884
Administration Bonds, Aug 1889-May 1933
Guardians Bonds, Jan 1898-Jan 1939
Temporary Bonds, Sep 1884-Jan 1964
Inventories, Appraisements, Sales, Dec 1813-Mar 1857
Inventories, Appraisements, Sales, Mar 1857-Jan 1878
Inventories, Appraisements, Sales, May 1877-Sep 1920
Returns and Vouchers, Sep 1816-Jan 1841
Returns and Vouchers, Apr 1841-Mar 1856
Returns and Vouchers, Apr 1856-Aug 1867
Returns and Vouchers, Feb 1868-Apr 1886
Returns and Vouchers, Oct 1886-Dec 1902
Bills of Sales, Jun 1897-Mar 1922
Twelve Months Support, Jul 1866-Nov 1926
Dismission Letters, Apr 1890-Jan 1964

 


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