Virginia Probate Records
This entry was originally written by Johni Cerny and Gareth L. Mark for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
In Virginia, estate records are produced by civil courts on the county level—in the county and circuit courts—except in independent cities where probate matters are the responsibility of the circuit court. Wills, administrations, guardianships, inventories, appraisals, and settlements are some of the records related to a person’s estate or probate record.
The Common Law of England applied in the colony, as did the written laws of England. Two important principles were primogeniture and the right of dower. Primogeniture is the device by which estates, particularly land, were kept whole. Basically, the eldest son, by right of birth, inherited all real estate. The right of dower is an old Common Law principle. Women acquired a dower right in all of their husbands’ real estate at marriage. At his death, the widow had the right to a portion of the real estate for the remainder of her natural life; the dower was generally one-third. Widows also had a dower right to their late husbands’ personal property; once again, the dower was generally one-third but might be an equal division with all of the surviving children. In 1673 the House of Burgesses confirmed the right of dower. The widow received one-third of her late husband’s personal property if there were one or two children; if there were three or more, she inherited equally with the children. She also inherited one-third of her late husband’s real estate for life and could not be disinherited.
Probates and administrations could be granted in three different places. English law specified that the Prerogative Court of Canterbury had probate jurisdiction in Virginia; Virginia law required probates and administrations to be granted in the Quarter or General Court; and after 1645, certificates of probate or administration could be granted in the county court. Wills, inventories, and appraisals were supposed to be recorded in both the county and the office of the Secretary of the Colony.
If the probate or administration was granted in England, it has probably been abstracted and published in Peter Wilson Coldham, comp., American Wills & Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610–1857 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1989). A series of articles in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography was excerpted and reprinted as Lothrop Withington, Virginia Gleanings in England: Abstracts of 17th and 18th-Century English Wills and Administrations Relating to Virginia and Virginians (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1980). See also Peter Winston Coldham, American Wills Proved in London, 1611–1775 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992).
The earliest records of probates and administrations are found in Susan Myra Kingsbury, ed., The Records of the Virginia Company of London (see Background Sources for Virginia). Other records of probates and administrations are found in H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia, 2d ed. (Richmond, Va.: Virginia State Library, 1979).
The greatest source of probate records is the county. Most colonial wills, inventories, and appraisements are indexed in Clayton Torrence, comp., Virginia Wills and Administrations, 1632–1800 (1930; reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000). See also Wesley E. Pippenger, comp., Index of Virginia Estate Records, 1800–1865, 3 vols. (Richmond, Va.: Virginia Genealogical Society, 2001–2002); vol. 1 includes all estate-related records for the counties of Arlington (excluding the City of Alexandria), Fairfax, Faquier, King George, Loudoun, Prince William and Strattford; vol. 2 includes records for the counties of Clarke, Culpeper, Frederick, Greene, Madison, Orange, Page, Rappahannock, Shenandoah, Spotsylvania, and Warren; vol. 3 includes records for the counties of Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Craig, Dickenson, Floyd, Franklin, Giles, Grayson, Henry, Lee, Montgomery, Patrick, Pulaski, Roanoke, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise, and Wythe.
All aspects of early probate proceedings were generally recorded in will books, including copies of wills, inventories, appraisements, guardianships, appointments, and sales of estate assets. Original will books are available at the county clerk’s office or the Library of Virginia; moreover, most surviving will books dated prior to 1904 have been microfilmed and are available at the library and the FHL. A list of holdings for each county of the Library of Virginia is at www.lva.lib.va.us/whatwehave/local/local_rec/county_city/index.htm.
Many Virginia counties have “loose papers” or “chancery court records” on file in metal boxes at the clerk’s office. These often contain additional information such as affidavits, powers of attorney, letters from individuals living outside the county, and receipts submitted to the court in the process of probating an estate. These records are filed chronologically, have not been filmed, and, in many instances, are in poor condition, but can be searched at the clerk’s office.
In addition to printed indexes, many early Virginia will books have been abstracted and published. The Library of Virginia and the FHL have large collections of these works, and many other libraries nationwide have some printed will abstracts. Some indexes to chancery court orders have been microfilmed and can be searched at the Library of Virginia and FHL. Check county holdings online at the website of both libraries.