Armchair research for New Jersey probate or estate files?
Yup!! In August 2012, a new digital resource became available for New Jersey researchers at FamilySearch.org — New Jersey, Probate Records, 1678-1980. The initial digital image uploads for this Historical Record Collection were comprised of *two* different records groups. The first part (state-level) was the Pre-1901 Secretary of State Estate File packets and the second part (county-level) was respective County Surrogate’s Court records.
Unfortunately, due to the licensing agreement with the New Jersey State Archives (NJSA), FamilySearch did remove the Pre-1901 Secretary of State Estate File images in November. However, the Surrogate’s Court records for the counties have remained online. At this time, only the County of Morris Surrogate’s Court is not represented. This is due to the fact that they have not allowed FamilySearch to microfilm their records.
It is important for researchers to remember that the estate packets differ from the County Surrogate’s in a major way. The state-level Pre-1901 Secretary of State Estate File packets contain the original documents filed – wills, public notices, inventories, etc. Whereas the County Surrogate’s Court is charged with maintaining “copies” aka transcriptions of the filed papers , so you are not as likely to find the copies of the public notices or other miscellaneous filings.
NOTE: Researchers can order photocopies of the Pre-1901 Secretary of State Estate File packets directly using the NJSA Mail Reference service.
Can you use the Pre-1901 Estate Index to cross-reference to the County Surrogate’s Court estate filings?
Hmmm, the answer is kind of, sort of… The Pre-1901 Secretary of State Estate File index that is available on Ancestry.com comprises of almost all of the probate filings for testate decedents. Those who died intestate or without a will, may or may not show up in the *state-level* compilation of estate files sent to Trenton by the County Surrogate’s Courts.
Each County Surrogate’s Court has a docket or estate index for all proceedings that the court handled. So, you may be pleasantly surprised to find estate filings that are not included in that Pre-1901 index, but you will find all of those in the state-wide index in the county-level filings.
Don’t skip this step! It is important not to rely solely on the state-level Pre-1901 estate packet nor only on County Surrogate’s filings. You need to use BOTH.
A recent find illustrates this point very clearly… Cornelius Norwood of Essex County died sometime after the 1850 and before the 1860 US censuses. He is not listed in the Pre-1901 Secretary of State Estate File index. However, when a search was made in the Docket Index of the County of Essex Surrogate’s Court, we find that his estate’s Administrator was appointed on 12 April 1859. This find definitely caused a “genealogy happy dance” for the researcher!
Since this digital Historical Record Collection has not been indexed, researchers will find that browsing the images in the database is cumbersome. However, I would wager that the potential results will far outweigh the cost of sifting through the indexes. I hope you’d agree, too.