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Will & Estate Research at the Archives & Library of the Ohio History Connection

History of Wills & Estates in Ohio

Below is a timeline on the history of wills and estates in the state of Ohio from the Northwest Territory to the present.

August 30, 1788: As part of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Governor Arthur St. Clair and judges of the Northwest Territory established a Probate Court in each county with one appointed judge. Duties included the recording of wills and letters of administration. Final decrees were issued by a three-judge panel made up of the probate judge and two Common Pleas Court judges.

1795: Probate Courts handled general probate, including wills, marriages, guardianship and administration matters. Two Common Pleas and Probate judges made final judgments. Orphans Courts, established June 16, 1795, were separated from the Probate Court and judges were selected from the General Court of Quarter Sessions. The court had county jurisdiction to supervise guardians, trustees, executors, administrators or any persons caring for the property of orphans or minor children.

►1803: The first Ohio Constitution determined county Courts of Common Pleas would handle all probate, guardianship and estate administration matters.

1810: Courts of Common Pleas had original jurisdiction in all cases of probate, guardianship, administration and division of property less than $1,000. Chancery Courts were established in Ohio as divisions within county Courts of Common Pleas to hear estate cases of equity and civil cases where claims are in conflict. Chancery Court judges issued decisions based on their reasoning and experience, or ethical insights independent of formulated bodies of law. Cases heard in Chancery Courts did not follow procedures and norms of the Court of Common Pleas. Decisions could be appealed to that county’s Court of Common Pleas or to the Supreme Court on Circuit.

1848: Courts of Common Pleas had original jurisdiction in civil cases above the Justice of the Peace jurisdiction, all probate, guardianship, and administration matters, all crimes including capital cases, and appellate jurisdiction from lesser county courts. The Supreme Court on Circuit had original, but concurrent jurisdiction with Courts of Common Pleas in chancery cases where title to land is in question or amount is over $1,000. It had exclusive jurisdiction in divorce or alimony cases and appellate jurisdiction in chancery cases. Chancery Courts continued as divisions of Courts of Common Pleas.

1852-present: Probate Courts were re-established in each county, had one elected judge to serve a three-year term, and replaced Chancery Courts. Probate Courts became responsible for will and estate administration, the appointment of executors and guardians, sale of land by executors, administrators, and guardians, and issuing marriage licenses. 

What records do we have?

Search our Online Collections Catalog for more information on will and estate materials held at the Ohio History Connection. We hold will and estate records from some, but not all, Ohio counties. For wills and estates created after 1852, contact the county Probate Court. Some county Probate Courts exist as a division of county Courts of Common Pleas. For wills and estates created prior to 1852, or records housed in the Probate Division of a Court of Common Pleas, contact the county Clerk of Courts for more information.

What records do we not have?

We do not hold will and estate records from every county. If we do not hold records for a county of interest, you should contact the county Clerk of Courts or Probate Court for more information. From 1803 to 1851, county Courts of Common Pleas handled all wills and estates. Will and estate records from 1852 to the present are created and maintained by county Probate Courts. 

Several repositories across the state collect local government records from nearby county courts. Visit our Ohio Network of American History Research (ONAHR) Centers webpage to view a list of repositories.

Many Ohio counties have their own archives and records centers where historic records are maintained. Not all records are transferred to repositories and sometimes remain at the courthouse. View a list of County Archives and Records Centers for more information.