Massachusetts Probate Records

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This entry was originally written by Alice Eichholz, Ph.D., CG, for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
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the Massachusetts Family History Research series.
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By the time the Great Migration occurred, probate proceedings had already begun to apply to those with even minor personal property in England. Puritans pursued the practice with some vigor, but certainly not universally. Whether the person died with a will or without (intestate), complete probate proceedings were not automatic.

Probate records in Massachusetts are reasonably intact, but there are still gaps. In all cases there are two groups of records of concern: the original papers brought to court (such as original wills, affidavits of all kinds, and receipts from heirs) and those papers that were actually recorded in county probate books. Both of these exist in abundance for the state.

In Massachusetts the probate court jurisdictions follow county lines. Probate records have been published for Essex County (1635'81), Bristol County (1687'1745; 1745'62); Middlesex (1649'75, in process); wills for Suffolk County (1639'70); and indexes for the counties of Essex (1638'1841), Middlesex (1648'1909), Norfolk (1793'1900), Plymouth (1686'1881), Suffolk (1636'1910), and Worcester (1731'1910), many of which are also available for purchase in a CD-ROM format. Ruth Wilder Sherman and Robert S. Wakefield's Plymouth Colony Probate Guide (Warwick, R.I.: Plymouth Colony Research Group, 1983) is an alphabetical list of probate records (1620'91) and where they can be found for over 800 people who died in the colony.

Each probate court has its own record books, with indexes of its original files usually arranged by file number. The Massachusetts Archives, however, holds original probate files for Suffolk County (1636'1894), Middlesex County (1648'1871), Plymouth County (1686'1881), and Essex County (1638'1882, partially in storage). Probate record books to the mid-nineteenth century are generally on microfilm through the FHL, but most of the original files are only at the probate court office or the Massachusetts Archives. One exception is Middlesex County files, which are available on microfilm from the FHL and the Boston Public Library. Expanding microfilm collections at both repositories include record books for Middlesex, Suffolk, and Hampshire counties, among others.

Beginning in 1922 divorces fell under the jurisdiction of both the superior court and probate court of the county (see Massachusetts Court Records). However, almost all cases after that date have been heard in probate court.