The history of New York's probate records is a confusing one. Prior to 1787, probate was handled by different courts whose jurisdiction kept changing.
Dutch Period Pre-1660
Up until the 1680s, wills were probated by notary publics in accordance with Dutch law. The law never required these wills to be recorded. So notary publics kept the wills and other legal documents in their personal possession.
There are 800 volumes of surviving notary public records at the Municipal Archives of Amsterdam. These records are not indexed and are difficult to understand. Some notarial records can be found in Oude West-indische Compagnie Notoulen at the New York State Library.
In 1656, orphan masters oversaw the inheritances of minors. Some of these records can be found at the LDS:
Fernow, Berthold. The Records of New Amsterdam from 1653 to 1674 Anno Domini. vol 6. microfilm # 982187
Orphanmasters' Minutes of New Amsterdam 1655-1663 microfilm # 6071939.
British Period 1660-1787
When the British took control of the colony, probates were first placed under the jurisdictions of the Court of Assizes or the Court of Quarter Sessions. By 1686, probates were centralized under the Prerogative Court, who probated all wills and administrations. The colonial governor was the 'surrogate general' with the power to probate estates. Since he couldn't personally oversee the probates, local surrogates were appointed.
In 1691, the Court of Common Pleas also started handling probate matters. The Courts of Common Pleas were situated in each county, except in the southern district of New York (which includes Kings County). Southern district county estates were handled by the New York County Surrogate Court. Prior to 1787, some wills were recorded in county records.
The first New York State constitution of 1778 replaced the Prerogative Court with the Probate Court. Courts of Probate handled all estates from 1778-1787, except New York City. New York City was still under British control, so the governor still oversaw probate. After 1787, Courts of Probate only handled the matter of someone who died in one county, but owned property in another. It was completely done away with in 1823 and the Court of Chancery took over probate matters.
In 1797, Albany became the state capital and many records were shipped there. They first went to the Albany County Court of Probates, and then on to the Albany County Court of Appeals. A 1799 law required that most - but not all - pre 1787 probate records from the counties in the southern district be shipped back to the New York County Surrogate Court by 1802. NOTE: The Albany County Surrogate Court does not have any of these records.
When the Court of Chancery ceased operations in 1847, its records were sent to the Court of Appeals in Albany. During the 1960s, many of these records - including some from the New York County Surrogate Court - were sent to the Historical Documents Collection at Queens College. All of the Court of Appeals records have been sent back to Albany.
These records are now at the New York State Archives entitled Records of the New York Court of Probates and its Colonial Predecessors, 1664-1823. This collection contains wills from 1671-1815, accounts from 1666-1823 and administrations from 1700-1823. The records for the First Circuit Chancery Court are still at the New York County Courthouse.
American Period 1787-present
The county surrogate court has handled all probate matters since May 1787. Each surrogate court has an index to all probate records, including the unrecorded probate packets.
Probate packets are the most important part of the record. It is also known as an estate file. More New Yorkers will be found in the probate packets than the actual will books. The packet contains all documents pertaining to the estate settlement, including a will or administration, bond and inventory. A petition that lists heirs and their relationship to the deceased is also included - but only since 1830.
Will books have been recorded by the surrogate court since 1787. Many counties have estate index books, wills, administrations, letters, guardianship, administration bonds, etc. The surrogate courts ask a large fee for photocopying this information!
The LDS has many probate packets microfilmed. They also have New York County wills from 1665-1916 with accompanying indexes.
To better assist you in manuevering through the world of probate, I have included the following definitions:
will: a legal document stating what is to be done with your property when you die. It may also name guardians for children.
testate: dying with a valid will.
testator: someone who makes a will.
intestate: dying without a valid will. In this case, the probate court appoints someone to distribute the deceased's property in accordance with the state's intestate laws.
executor/executrix: person named in the will to oversee the deceased's property. They are responsible for collecting the property, paying all debts and taxes, distributing the property in accordance with the will and if need be, handles any court proceedings.
inventory: a listing of all of the deceased's possessions.
probate: the court process that includes any or all of the following: proving authenticity of the will; appoints person to manage deceased's affairs; identifies and inventories deceased's property; oversees payment of all debts and taxes; identifies heirs; distributes property in accordance to will or state intestate laws.
administration (Of an estate): the court supervised distribution of the deceased's estate. If the will does not name an executor, the probate court appoints one known as an administrator or personal representative.
administration bonds: the bond posted by the administrator to guarantee proper performance of duties.
letters testamentary: document given to executor by the probate court, authoring him/her to settle the estate in accordance to the will or the state's intestate laws.
contest (a will): to challenge the validity of a will through legal proceedings.
dower: the right of a widow to her husband's property or land, even if bequeathed to another.
letters of collection: document granted to an administrator of an estate giving them the authority to collect all of the deceased's possessions in the time period prior to the will being proven.
Probate Records at the NYGB&S
Register of Provincial Secretary, New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch, Volumes 1-3 (1974). NYGB Ref #: NY G 55.1
Register of Salomon Lachaire; Notary of New Amsterdam, New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch, Volumes 1-3 (1978). NYGB Ref # NY G 55.1
Register of Walewyn Van der Veen; Notary of New Amsterdam, Year Book of the Holland Society of New York (1900). NYGB microfilm: 152-158. (Also at the LDS).
Minutes of the Orphanmasters Court of New Amsterdam 1655-1663. 2 volumes (1902-1907) NYGB Ref # NY G 23, v. 1-2
1663-1668 (1976) NYGB Ref # NY G 24
Eardeley, William A. Index to Wills of New York State. p.5
NYGB Ref #: NY G 12.251
Wills of New Yorkers Proved in Boston 1688-1691, from The American Genealogist NYGB Ref #: 12:177-179, 231-233.
Thomas, Milton Halsey & Charles Shepard II. Index to Wills, Administrations
and Guardianships of Kings County, New York 1650-1850. Abstracted from The Record. NYGB Ref #: 47:161-170, 227-232.
Probate Records at the LDS
New York County (including New York City)
Index to Wills for New York County 1662-1850 microfilm # 860313 items 1-3.
Index to Wills for New York County 1851-1875 microfilm # 860313 items 4-6.
Index to Letters of Administration for New York County 1743-1875 microfilm # 1425588 items 2-7.
Surrogate Court Index to New York City Inventories of Estates 1783-1834 microfilm # 514685.
Municipal Archives Index (Surrogate Court) 1830-1929 microfilm # 899357.
NOTE: This index includes accountings, box and bundle numbers from 1-3106 for 1830-1922; administrations 1830-1929; old libers and original wills 1830-1900.
Surrogate Court Rejected Will Index 1807-1926 microfilm # 912806.
Surrogate Court Index to Wills 1830-1865 microfilm # Surname A-D 0872164; E-H 0872165; I-Mc 0872166; M-Q 0872167; R-S 0872168; T-Z 0872169.
NOTE: This index is used in conjunction with the LDS' filming of Surrogate Court Probate Proceedings 1830-1865. It covers 228 rolls of microfilm. The records are in order by month of filing. To determine the date of filing, use the above index.
Surrogate Court Index to Wills 1662-1923 microfilm # 1314041.
NOTE: This index is used in conjunction with the LDS' filming of Surrogate Court Record of Wills 1665-1916. It covers 518 rolls of microfilm.
New York City
Index of Wills Proved in the Supreme Court, Court of Common Pleas, County Court and Probate Court and on file at the Court of Appeals microfiche # 6101527.
NOTE: No dates are given for this microfiche.
Surrogate Court Index to Records of Will Libers, New York City 1662-1870 microfilm # Surname A-D 501139; F-H 501140; M-Z 501141.
NOTE: This index is used in conjunction with the LDS' filming of Surrogate Court Records of Will Libers, New York City 1662-1927. It covers 88 rolls of microfilm.
Kings County (Brooklyn)
Surrogate Court Index to Wills 1787-1923 microfilm: Surname A-B 1796-1923 # 877191; C-E 1789-1923 # 877192; F-G 1793-1923 # 877193; H-K 1788-1923 877194; L-M 1787-1923 # 876421; N-R 1791-1923 # 876422; S 1788-1914 # 876423; T-Z 1787-1923 # 876424.
NOTE: This index is used in conjunction with the LDS' filming of Surrogate Court Wills 1787-1923.
Surrogate Court Index to Letters Testamentary 1897-1899 microfilm # 1862976.
Queens County Index to Wills of Real Estate, Libers A-G 1787-1835 microfilm #17872 item 2
Queens County Index to Administrations 1787-1908 microfilm #17875 item 2
Queens County Index to Wills 1787-1906 microfilm #17875 item 1
The following can be found at the LDS:
New York County (including New York City)
Court of Common Pleas Abstracts of Wills 1817-1892; Supreme Court of Judicature 1821-1829, 1847-1870 microfilm # 860314 item 1.
NOTE: Index included.
Abstract of Wills for New York County 1808-1814 microfilm # 860314 items 2-3.
NOTE: Index included.
Surrogate Court Accounts Not In Decrees 1810-1862 microfilm # 911786-911792; 911257-911276; 912712.
NOTE: These are final statements of credits or debits. The accounts are not in strict alphabetical order.
Surrogate Court Administration Bonds 1753-1866 microfilm # 907917-907918; 901440-901449; 905676-905712.
NOTE: Index included.
Surrogate Court Decrees on Accounting 1828-1865 microfilm # (Indexes) 907916; 872176-872177; (Decrees) 899300-899305; 906853-906855; 899306; 899341-899363; 899441-899477; 905493-905500; 907001-907020; 903722-903745; 903865-903890; 906772-906784; 907425-907436; 909774-909785; 906841-906852; 907911-907912; 907915.
NOTE: To properly search these records, you must ascertain the bundle # from the index. Then find the corresponding microfilm # for your bundle #.
Surrogate Court Estate Orders 1840-1865 microfilm # 900421-900428; 909243-909249; 913389-913390; 909252-909254; 913395-913398; 909255-909261; 913391-913394; 913388.
NOTE: Records are in chronological order.
Surrogate Court Executors Renunciations 1792-1890 Index 1830-1912 microfilm # 911785 (Index); 911772-911784.
Surrogate Court Inventories 1862-1865 microfilm # 907919; 910923-910934; 911767-911771.
NOTE: Records are not in strict chronological order.
Surrogate Court Letters & Petitions of Administration 1798-1862 microfilm # 913432-913435.
Surrogate Court Letters of Administration 1768-1866 Index 1743-1910 microfilm # 872170-872175; 907914; 907921-907922; 902204-902206; 899317-899319; 904567-904578; 905239-905249; 899285-899299.
Surrogate Court Letters of Collection 1858-1865 microfilm # 912839.
Probate Court Letters Testamentary 1793-1806 microfilm # 17417.
NOTE: Index included.
Surrogate Court Letters Testamentary 1830-1866 microfilm # 892774-892795,
NOTE: Index included.
Surrogate Court Miscellaneous Orders 1803-1870 microfilm # 909250-909251; 900416-900420.
NOTE: These records include some letters of administration.
Surrogate Court Miscellaneous Probate Records 1800-1965 microfilm # 909302; 909308; 909300; 909303-909304; 909309-909310; 909299; 909305-909306; 909311; 913419-913420; 913422-913423; 913426-913428; 909301; 909307; 913421; 913424-913425; 913429-913431.
Surrogate Court Orders Admitting Wills 1851-1866 microfilm # 912840-912841; 907910.
NOTE: Each volume is indexed. Volumes 1 & 8 are missing.
Surrogate Court Orders Granting & Denying Petitions 1828-1865; Index 1830-1882 microfilm # 912807 Index; 912808-912825; 900411-900413; 912826-912831.
NOTE: These are final decisions.
Surrogate Court Petitions & Accounts 1803-1888 microfilm # 913516-913518; 913403-913404; 913410; 913408; 913405; 913399; 913402; 913400; 913406; 912730-912732; 913519-913521; 913407; 913408; 913522-913523; 912728-912729; 900415 item 1; 913401; 912726-912727; 913524-913525; 912722-912725; 913526; 913515; 912719-912721.
NOTE: The records are alphabetized by surname.
Surrogate Court Petitions for Letters of Administration 1830-1876 microfilm # 892796; 895511-895537; 893770-893803; 898008-898010; 895765-895775; 895738-895748.
Surrogate Court Proceedings in the Sale of Real Estate 1800-1872; Index 1800-1872 microfilm # 912835 Index; 912836-912838.
Surrogate Court Proceedings to Probate Wills of Real Estate 1830-1867 microfilm # 900915-900924; 902196-902203.
Surrogate Court Real Estate Proceedings 1800-1880 microfilm # 906856-906868; 910888-910922.
NOTE: The records are alphabetized by surname of the decedent.
Surrogate Court Records of Dower 1831-1856 microfilm # 912832.
Surrogate Court Selected Wills microfilm # 17123.
NOTE: Includes index. No dates are given for this microfilm.
Surrogate Court Special Collection Bonds 1849-1870 microfilm # 913527.
NOTE: Special collection bonds are bonds posted by more than one person.
Surrogate Court Wills & Administrations 1680-1804 microfilm # 497592-497600; 484023; 493478; 484025.
Probate Court Wills 1787-1822 microfilm # 17416.
List of Wills.... microfilm # 17411.
New York City
Surrogate Court Abstract of Wills Volumes 25-41: microfilm # 509196; 845296-845302 item 1. Microfiche # 6046928.
NOTE: Each volume is indexed. Only the above volumes have been microfilmed.
For addresses of active courts, please see my contact page.
The Brooklyn webpage has the 1892 Brooklyn Eagle Index to Wills. This is a surname searchable
page for wills mentioned in the 1892 Brooklyn Eagle newspaper.