When Your Ancestor Isn’t in the Will

Wills can be excellent resources for your genealogy research. But what does it mean when your ancestor isn’t included or received only $1? Let’s take a look at the possibilities and what they mean for your family history.
Click the play button or scroll below to keep reading.

What Being Out of the Will Means for Your Genealogy

Genealogists use wills to connect two generations. When you look at a will and don’t find someone listed as an heir, it’s easy to presume that person wasn’t a child of the deceased.

However, in the United States, there is no requirement that you include all of your children in your will. You don’t have to include any of them if you don’t want to. (We’ve seen that recently with the will of country superstar Naomi Judd, who left out her daughters Wynonna and Ashley Judd.) So if you’re concluding that Robert must not be John’s son because he isn’t listed in John’s will, you might be making an incorrect conclusion.

Why a Child Might Not Be Included in a Will

It’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that there was some sort of rift in the family. But there are two other reasons to consider.

One of the most common reasons a child isn’t included is because he or she already received something of value (such as money and/or land), either when they came of age or got married. In essence, this child already received his or her inheritance.

Another possibility, especially in large families, is that the child wasn’t born when the will was written. If your ancestor was born in 1855, it’s pretty hard to be named in a will that was written in 1850. Always pay attention to when the will was written. Then, make sure you’re looking at the other probate papers to see if he or she is mentioned.

When An Ancestor Received $1 in a Will

Sometimes you’ll run across a person leaving a child $1 or some other token amount. It isn’t necessarily because there was a conflict between the deceased and the child.

When you specifically name someone in a will and leave a token amount, it can be a way to avoid legal entanglements by the heirs later. An heir can’t come back and contest the will “because I wasn’t included” if that heir was specifically named and received something.

As for why that child received just a token amount, it could be because they had already received their inheritance… or it could be a rift in the family.

A Probate Research Strategy

Whether your ancestor was or wasn’t included in the will, always take a look at the other documents in that probate case. The will is just one document. There are many others, including inventories and settlements. Those other documents can have vital clues for determining what is going on with that family. Also take a look at land records for that area to see if you can find a transfer between the deceased and the child you think is missing.

Ancestry and FamilySearch both have excellent probate collections for the United States. FamilySearch also has many land records, which you can find if you go through their catalog.


Posted: August 18, 2022.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Great topic! (An aspect of wills I don’t think I’ve seen addressed before.) I just recently saw a will that did, luckily, mention that one son (by name) had already received his inheritance. Wills, in addition to containing a plethora of relationship clues, can also be a goldmine when it comes to African American research. (As I’m sure you know.) I have one ancestor who divided his slaves by numbers only (leaving so many to each heir). And another (his son) divided them by name, specifically keeping family groups together. I’m not crazy to have slave-holding ancestors, but fascinated by the apparent change in attitude from one generation to the next.

  • I have an ancestor who has his will probated in Alabama, but he lived his whole life in Virginia. He does list slaves and wills them to his children, so sad. Just wondering if the will is always probated where the person dies? I have a brick wall on this person.

    • The probate is generally handled where the person lived (legal residence). However, if they had property in another location, the records pertaining to their distribution could also be in that other location. (In other words, there would be records in both places.) I bet what you’re seeing in Alabama is either a copy of the will that was actually probated in Virginia or he had recently moved to Alabama.

  • Amy, I love your articles and videos. Something that I think could be helpful to researchers is this….currently we have laws that leave real estate, investments, bank accounts, etc. to some as “transfer on death” which leaves these out of a person’s estate. For instance, my mother had all her investments and bank accounts and her real estate in “TOD” status precluding any reason to even file her Will with the Probate Court. So we did not. I have her Will attached to her in my Roots Magic file and in my notebook but it is not in the public domain. So checking real estate records is an absolute NECESSITY for modern day research. If they had no real estate there would not be any public record at all.