Estate records document the value of property and how it is transferred to heirs and beneficiaries after the owner’s death. This is valuable information to historians, because frequently these records contain details about a person’s land, house, and belongings, as well as relationships with family and community.
If a person left a will, it will be recorded at the Register of Wills office in Wilmington. With the chain of title for your property in hand, look up the names of past owners in the main index to find the reference number for the will. (You may even have found a specific will reference in one of the deeds already.) Then, ask the staff to retrieve the microfilm records for you. Do not be surprised if you cannot find your owners’ names in the index. Not everyone makes a will.
For a $2.00 fee per name, the Register of Wills office will send you a letter outlining what records are available in their holdings.
Wills also available at UD (microfilm 8364 for wills dated 1682-1854), and DSA.
These reference books may prove helpful:
Virdin, Donald Odell, ed. New Castle County, Delaware Wills and Estates, 1682-1800, An Index. St. Michaels, MD: Raymond B. Clark, 1982.
Virdin, Donald Odell, ed. Colonial Delaware Wills and Estates to 1880, An Index. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1994.
National Society of Colonial Dames. Delaware, A Calendar of Delaware Wills, New Castle County, 1682-1800. New York, 1911. Available at UD (Spec.FI63 .V567 1994).
Probate records document how a person’s estate was administered after death. You may find challenges made to the validity of a will and claims made against the estate for payment of debts. Records can include appraisals of real estate and property inventories, which can be especially valuable when researching the history of a house. Inventories vary in their level of detail. Typically, they list the contents of the house and outbuildings, giving the value for each item. If you are fortunate enough to find a room by room inventory, you may be able to reconstruct how each room was furnished and used, although be aware that sometimes furniture was moved around before being counted in inventories.
Available at DSA, UD (microfilm 3087 for 1670- 1860 records).
Orphans’ Court Records
If a person died leaving minor children and did not make a will, disposition of assets was handled by the Orphans’ Court. Typically, the court assigned a committee to survey and to determine the condition and value of real and personal estate before the court decided how it was to be transferred to the heirs. You will possibly find physical descriptions of the property. Sometimes you will find survey maps showing how different parts of the property were used, and, occasionally, the surveyor made little sketches of the buildings. Available at D8A, UD (microfilm 8365 for 1742-1868 records), and CHAD for verbatim building descriptions, 1770-1830.
These records relate to Orphans’ Court documents. They chronicle the activities of the estate as it is administered by the guardians assigned to orphaned heirs. Available at D8A (Uncataloged. You must ask for these records specifically), UD (microfilm 8365 for 1803-1869 records).
Chancery Court Records
Chancery Court handles cases when estates need to be divided among heirs. Like Orphans’ Court records, you may find useful descriptions and survey maps. Available at UD (microfilm 8365 for 1833-1852 records, and state doc KFD 531.A514 Delaware Chancery Reports, 1814- ).