Frequently Asked Questions
Madison County Estate Records
of Estate Records can I find online?
What is an Abstract?
Where can I look at the actual
What if my ancestor
didn't leave a will?
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
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
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
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
Book B... 1842 1896
Will Book... 1897
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
clerks job easier. Write to:
P.O. Box 207
Danielsville, GA 30633
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
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
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
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 childs "person
and property", becoming responsible for the childs care
and upbringing as well as managing his or her inheritance.
It was often a male relative who took guardianship of the childs
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 childs
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 ancestors
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.
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 heres
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
books can be viewed at the Madison County Courthouse.
Will Book B, 1842-1897
Administration and Guardianship, Sep 1856-Oct 1897
Letters, Aug 1889-May 1933
Letters, Feb 1899-Dec 1963
May 1890-Mar 1962
and Guardian Bonds, Dec 1813-Jun 1884
Bonds, Aug 1889-May 1933
Guardians Bonds, Jan 1898-Jan
Temporary Bonds, Sep 1884-Jan 1964
Appraisements, Sales, Dec 1813-Mar 1857
Appraisements, Sales, Mar 1857-Jan 1878
Appraisements, Sales, May 1877-Sep 1920
Vouchers, Sep 1816-Jan 1841
Vouchers, Apr 1841-Mar 1856
Vouchers, Apr 1856-Aug 1867
Vouchers, Feb 1868-Apr 1886
Vouchers, Oct 1886-Dec 1902
of Sales, Jun 1897-Mar 1922
Months Support, Jul 1866-Nov 1926
Letters, Apr 1890-Jan 1964