James L.   Tanner

Is a retired attorney and business owner with over 33 years of experience in genealogical research. James was an intelligence officer during the Vietnam War, has a BA Degree in Spanish, a Masters Degree in Linguistics from the University of Utah, and a JD Degree in Law from Arizona State University.


March 16, 2015
8:00 am : The Ins and Outs of Probate for Genealogists -- In the Beginning

(All Levels) Probate is a set of court or government procedures established for the orderly transfer of property from a deceased person to his or her heirs and/or assigns. Records kept in the course of a probate action are valuable sources of information for genealogists about the deceased and the deceased's family.

Learn why these records are so valuable and how to use them in solving research problems. You will be surprised at just how much information is available. The key is learning how to connect the parts that reveal who is who in your family history.

8:00 am : Where There is a Will There is a Way

(All Levels) It is important to understand that the laws governing wills, trusts, estates and probate are sometimes significantly different from state to state and especially from country to country. After going to law school, an attorney specializing in this particular area of the law, could spend years learning about the procedures and details of handling a probate case.

Genealogists are told that certain types of documents, such as wills, are "valuable sources of information about individuals and families." In addition, the large genealogical database companies often have extensive collections of wills and probate files. To a novice researcher, such files can be impenetrable. Fortunately, a genealogical researcher does not have to achieve the same level of competence as a practicing probate attorney, but the learning curve can be almost as steep. Spend some learning how to successfully use these documents.

March 18, 2015
8:00 am : Understanding the Language of a Will

(All Levels) Legal language is extremely conservative. A will written in the 1700s contains some of the same language as one written in the 1900s. In the United States, we rely on the English Common Law system with a few exceptions. This is a system that relies on stare decisis, that is the precedence of prior court rulings. The fact that the language, particularly that used in wills, has changed very little over many hundreds of years, makes reading old wills much easier for those already educated in the law. On the other hand, the old language and terms can make reading a will for those not initiated to the language, extremely difficult. Like many areas of genealogical research, using old legal documents can be a challenge and take some considerable study and experience. Come begin your education into the language of wills.

8:00 am : What is Probate?

(All Levels) Probate is a court supervised procedure for the orderly transfer of property after a person's death. In the United States, the term "probate" has a decidedly negative connotation. This has occurred primarily from two factors; the fact that some attorneys have charged a fixed percentage of an estate's value for shepherding a probate case through court and the promotional efforts of those individuals who purport to provide "estate planning."

The actual need for and the complexity of a probate action is determined entirely by the size and value of an estate and the ability of the heirs to agree among themselves. The need for a way to transfer property upon the death of the owner has existed since property ownership existed. The current procedures in the United States go back to English Common Law and the Court system that developed starting in the Middle Ages in England and other countries. The driving force for creating probate procedures is the existence of "titled property," that is property ownership that is evidenced by some kind of government issued title document created at the time the property is acquired. In our modern age, real estate and automobiles are the most common types of titled property. A more in-depth study will be had in the classroom.

8:00 am : What are Probate Procedures?

(All Levels) Some of the most valuable documents to genealogists in discovering information about their ancestors consist of the documents filed in probate actions. However, understanding what has happened and sorting out the various interests of the people named in the action can be a real challenge. Fortunately, genealogists do not need to understand probate in the way an attorney would need to know the subject, but on the other hand, many of the terms and particularly the procedures need to be understood so that the information obtained from the documents is correctly interpreted and recorded.

5:30 pm : Where do I find Probate Documents?

(All Levels) Now you have decided that your ancestors were not all paupers and the residents of poor houses and just maybe, they had a few dollars or some property to leave to their heirs. Where do you go to find these genealogically valuable probate documents?

March 20, 2015
8:00 am : An Example of a Simple Probate File

(All Levels) There are a huge number of probate files online. However, in many cases the files are not indexed and you must search the entire collection to see whether or not your ancestor's estate was subject to a probate action. It is very helpful to have an accurate death date to narrow the search. But you should also be aware that a probate action could be filed even years after an individual died. In the event addition property is found after an initial probate, then subsequent probate actions may be filed for after discovered property. It is also entirely possible that an ancestor owned land or property in more than one state, so individual probate actions, usually called ancillary probate actions are filed in each state where property was owned. This class will take an in-depth look at a full probate file.

8:00 am : What Happens When the Probate Gets Complicated?

(All Levels) A complicated probate is a genealogist's delight. What are the factors that comprise a "complicated" probate. There are a number of things that contribute, but in my experience there are really two main factors:
• A lot of property, both real and personal in various locations
• A major dispute among the heirs
Now if you were an heir in either of these situations, you probably would not think of the probate as being a delight. Depending on how much property is involved and/or how long the heirs want to keep fighting, the legal fees, alone, in a complicated probate can be staggering. But all this makes for a jolly good research opportunity for the persistent genealogist.

8:00 am : Avoiding Probate and Trusts

(Experienced) Unfortunately, the idea of avoiding probate with its attendant ills, has been replaced by the potential for even more complicated and costly litigation. If family members are going to fight, they will fight regardless of the formalities of the structure of the estate. In this regard, trusts have been touted as the way to avoid probate. This may be correct in some limited cases, but in reality, trusts are used more as tax planning devices rather than mere probate avoidance devices. Genealogists need to know that trusts have been in existence for hundreds of years.