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Court Records : Probate Courts

Organization of Probate Court Records

The main responsibility of the probate courts was to oversee the orderly disposition of a decedent’s real and personal property after his/her death.

Additional responsibilities varied from county to county but usually included:

  • Determination of an individual’s sanity or mental capacity, prior to the individual’s commitment to a state hospital or the appointment of a guardian
  • Appointment of a guardian for minor children who had been orphaned, abandoned, or whose parental rights had been terminated
  • Including commitment of children to the State Public School in Owatonna; and the adjudication of juveniles accused of criminal offenses, before the establishment of specific juvenile courts in the county.

Types of Probate Court Records

Case Files:

  • Contain copies of each document filed in a probate action.
  • In an estate action, the case file normally contains documents requesting an appointment of an administrator; filing and proving of the will, authorizing the payment of valid claims on the decedent’s estate; inventorying the assets and liabilities of the estate; and determining the appropriate disposition of the assets to heirs or legatees. 
  • In an insanity action, the case file may contain a petition asking the court to declare an individual insane, medical testimony bearing on the individual’s mental capacity, a determination by the court of the individual’s mental state, the possible commitment to a state hospital or other facility, and the appointment of a guardian for the individual. 
  • Guardianship files for minors or for adults who were unable to handle their affairs may contain a petition to appoint a guardian, reports from social service or other agencies requested by the judge, and reports on any assets that the minor child or incapacitated adult may be entitled to. 
  • In a juvenile delinquency action the case file may contain criminal complaints against the individual, investigatory reports ordered by the court, sentences imposed by the court, and follow-up reports ordered by the court.

Case files are normally filed in numerical order according to numbers assigned at the time of the opening of the case.
In some counties a single numerical sequence includes all types of cases. In other counties separately numbered series of files exist for estate cases, insanity cases, guardianship cases, or other special case types.

Registers of Actions:

  • Contain a record of the opening of each case and a notation of each document filed in the case.  
  • Brief  records that provide a framework for the history of each case and its participants.

Each volume usually includes an index to the cases in that volume. The registers usually include the case file number thereby providing an alternative to a separate index to the case files.

Will Books:

  • Contain a verbatim transcript of each will approved entered into the court record.
  • Contain only the last will approved by the court.  They will not contain earlier versions of wills that were later superceded. 
    • The original will is normally part of the probate case file. 
  • The will recorded in the will book will not contain original signatures of its creator or witnesses. 

Will books are normally arranged chronologically according to the date in which the will was entered into the court record, usually shortly after the death of the individual. Researchers should be aware that the date the will was made might have been many years before the will was entered into the court record.  Many will books are indexed in on Family in the online index to Minnesota Will Books (1849 - 1985).

Final Decrees of Distribution of Estates:

  • Contain a transcription of the final decree distributing the assets of a decedent
    • Original final decree normally is filed in the case file 
  • Will normally list which heir or legatee received what portion of the decedent’s real or personal property. 
    • Researchers should note that this document does not necessarily include a listing of what happened to all the property of the deceased. 
  • Will show how much cash each heir received if the estate administrator converted many of the estate’s assets into cash during the probate process

Final decrees are usually arranged within each volume in rough chronological order according to the date that the final decree was issued. Final decrees also may be arranged in several different series depending on the nature of the estate case and the type of decree. Frequently, some final decree records also were included in miscellaneous order books.  For certain time periods, final decrees may be separated by testate (decedent died with a valid will) or intestate (decedent died without a valid will) case type. 

Insanity Record Books:

  • Summary of the mental competency cases that came before the court
  • Frequently include a detailed medical evaluation of the individual whose competency was being questioned. 
    • If declared to be not competent to conduct one’s own affairs, an individual may have been committed to a state hospital.

Insanity records are mostly dated before 1920.  Access to certain information may be restricted.  
*This guide, and record finding aids, use the terms “insanity” and “insane” because those were the terms used when the records were created and are the terms that appear on the records.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Additional Record Books:

  • Inventories of the assets of estates, frequently termed “inventory and appraisement records”;
  • Letter records, appointing specific individuals as administrators of an estate;
  • Appointment books, appointing administrators or guardians;
  • Order books, reproducing administrative orders filed in a case file;
  • Guardianship records, appointing guardians for minor children or for an adult with diminished mental capacity; and
  • Minute books, containing brief entries of the daily proceedings before the court.

Access to Probate Court Records


The first step in using probate court records is to determine in which county a specific action occurred. Usually this would be the county of residence at the time of death. Probate actions, however, could occur in other counties or states where real property was owned.

Search the library catalog by county name for probate records at MNHS.  
Example: "Washington County Probate"

Estate case files are normally opened shortly after the death of the decedent. In certain cases, however, files may not be opened for several years or even decades, especially if a spouse survived.  In some instances probate case files were never opened because the deceased did not own real estate or did not have sufficient personal property to require court oversight of the estate.

Actions or decisions of the probate court may be appealed, usually to the district court in the respective county. The appeal file, if extant, may contain additional information about the individuals in the case. Such appeals may involve contestation of a will, disputing a financial claim filed against the estate, or a determination of the validity of a purported heir. The probate case file usually will give some evidence that the case resulted in an appeal to a higher court.

Most probate court records at MNHS are open to unrestricted use.  Certain case files or record types, especially relating to insanity cases less than 75 years old, have restricted access and special access procedures.  The staff of the library can assist researchers with these special conditions.

Case files not available at MNHS should be available in the District Court in the respective county.

Order Online

District/county court case files--including probate files--can be ordered via the District/County Court Case File Research Request  page at our online store. Please include any and all information you have about the record you are looking for.   

To order a will book record, please follow these instructions

Probate Court Links

Gale Family Library • Minnesota Historical Society • 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55102-1906 • 651-259-3300
Currently open by appointment only.