JewishGen Discussion Group #JewishGen Re: Looking for probate documentation for a person who died in New York City in 1985 #general

A. E. Jordan

To add some more details based on my experiences working with the
probate files.

Yes each borough is somewhat different in the resources and what is
available online and how you go about the research. Probate (if one
exists) in the borough where the person had their legal residence ...
not necessarily where they died. They could have gone to a hospital
and died in Manhattan but lived in the Bronx for example and the
probate if one was done would be in the Bronx. So if you can find it,
it helps to first get the death certificate or at least locate the
person in the death index or find a paid obit >from the newspaper.
Dates help because the indexes are very general and in many cases are
nothing more than a name, a date and the file number. A lot of them
do not have addresses so if you are searching a common name you could
have a real challenge if you do not know a date. It is also important
to understand that not everyone had a probate and even if they had
assets to prompt a filing they might not have had a will. This is
important because the courts keep separate files and indexes for a
probate with a will versus what is called an administration when
there is no will. However, the information is about the same in the
files but you have to know to check both (separate) indexes in some
cases. Ancestry has the early wills for the Bronx (up to the 1920s if
I recall correctly) and Family Search has Manhattan to around the turn
of the century. The Brooklyn files are also on Family Search (the
early ones) and the Brooklyn index is on Family Search for both wills
and administrations in theory to 1972 but I have found some gaps or
missing index cards in their file. Problem also is that Family Search
never made it searchable so you have to browse the index card which
requires some experience working with their files. Family Search also
has images of the Manhattan indexes but again it is not searchable so
you have to browse it. They have been adding to their Queens County
file to bring that index online. Some of the courts will work with you
remotely but sometimes the search fees are pretty high. As Phyllis
pointed out it can be easier to go there in person or hire someone to
go there for you. (I do retrievals for people.) Each court is
different. Brooklyn they are all on site in the basement and most
days they will pull the file while you wait unless they are short
staffed. Manhattan i working to scan files to their computers on site
but the old one are stored off site. You have to place an order to get
the file and they retrieve it in a few weeks. Good news if the file is
small they scan it and email it to you free of charge but if it is a
big file they call you to come back. The Bronx the newer files are
available while the older ones are stored and they only pull >from
storage once a week meaning it requires two trips to the Bronx. Queens
the file are on site either in paper or microfiche depending on the age.
Each court is a little different on it rules about copies. Brooklyn
encourages you to take photos on your phone if you have a smartphone
and Manhattan permits it if you ask. The Bronx generally says no to
pictures on your phone (Queens I do not remember since I have done less
work there). Do not take a camera though as the court houses do not
permit even a pocket camera. I know that sounds odd but that is how it
works ... the smart phone with a camera is not a problem but an
independent camera they will make you check at the door.
The good news is the files can be a treasure of information. You should
find next of kin, possibly just close or sometimes extended family
members, addresses where the person lived, their age, marital status and
some explanation of what they owned and its distribution. It could be
more involved depending on the size and complexity of the estate. There
could be a detailed listing of assets, tax papers, the details on what
they did to locate family members, and more. If the will or estate was
contested there can be hundreds of pages in the process with testimony,
etc. Note, in theory, death certificates are being removed >from the
file if they were there. Manhattan is definitely locking them if they
can the file. However if you are working with a paper file you might
till find the death certificate if it was there and no one stands over
you approving which pages you copy or photograph. The copy machine
generally are 25 cent a page so bring lots of change if you plan to make
copies. I am not going to go into the specific steps because they are
very entailed on Family Search other than to say go to search all files
and then you can limit it to USA, New York, and probate. The
explanation for browsing is cumbersome to put it all in this response.

Also note that while my response is specific to New York City since that
is what the original question was about and Phyllis' response a lot of
what I am saying works every where in the USA. If you are looking for
any USA probate start on FamilySearch and Ancestry and then search the
Internet for the probate court or records for the jurisdiction you need.
The court will have a page and generally explains the steps for
retrieving documents. I have done a lot of remote work all around the
USA. Smaller towns you can call the clerk and they work with you on the
phone sometimes. Sometime they send you what is called a docket which
lists the contents of the file and you pick and chose. Some courts for
example I have done Washington State it is all online and you chose
documents or say whole file and then they send you the price and you
pay online and the documents arrive in the mail in a few days. Most of
the courts you can talk to on the phone and explain you are looking for
details on heirs and family and they will work with you to help chose
the right documents.
Questions feel free to contact me. I have presented on probate at both
the International conference as well as some of the regional societies.
Allan Jordan

-----Original Message-----
From: Phyllis Kramer

The first thing to specify is what borough/county of New York City....
There are some really early indexes and files (pre 1910) on
FamilySearch. But for those residents of Queens and Brooklyn,
Familysearch has the probate indexes through the 1950s; these indexes
have names, addresses, date of death and the probate number and you
can browse the database by surname. Alas there is nothing like that
for New York City/Manhattan; but you can browse FamilySearch's partial
index through the early 1920s.