As noted in previous posts, aunts/uncles/cousins CAN inherit, if they can disprove the prior inheritance classes (spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, siblings/nieces/nephews) and prove their own relationship and identify and account for everyone at their inheritance level. This generally arises when the Public Administrator is filing a Accounting with the Court and refers to the cousins as “alleged” first cousins. The cousins then object and this sets the stage for a kinship trial.
Here are a few sources and techniques that we frequently use in this context:
- Testimony – During a kinship trial we generally need court testimony to lay a foundation for the introduction of documents into evidence. The best testimony often comes from relatives who can essentially “testify as to the family tree”. Not everyone can do this, and not every family has someone who can do it. But many do. In a cousins case we need someone who can testify about the decedent’s grandparents and more importantly, the grandparents children (who are the aunts and uncles of the decedent). Testimony and documents about aunts and uncles is crucial in a cousins case because after all, who are cousins? They are children of aunts and uncles!
- Surrogate’s Court records – These are the gold standard for proof in a kinship case. This is because the files contain Affidavits where people have sworn to familial information. So, if we locate an old Surrogate’s Court file for Grandpa, where there are Affidavits stating how many children he had, this is very useful in establishing how many aunts and uncles there were. These files often have other useful peripheral information too. Outside of New York there are similar Courts relating to probate and inheritance, and they are always worth looking at in kinship situations.
- Obituaries – The internet has made these much easier to find. When you’re trying to prove how many children a particular person had, or who someone’s relatives were, obits are often useful. That being said, sometimes they get it wrong too. For example, in obits sometimes step-children and even foster children are referred to as children. This can often be explained with testimony. So, obits are useful, but you have to look at them carefully and be prepared to explain discrepancies.
- Census records – Certified Federal (and State) census records can be useful The Federal census is every ten years, and at this time you can get them through 1940. The records are pretty detailed regarding who was living in a particular household, and how they are related. As with obits, sometimes the census records really help, and sometimes they present questions that have to be explained. Like, if in 1920 you have a 3 year old showing as a child in a household, and in 1930 that child is no longer there, what happened? Sometimes there’s a useful explanation….like, he died. But what if the explanation is “the family was poor so he was sent to live with relatives down South, and we lost track of him”? Hopefully you can pick up the trail and account for this person and his/her offspring.
- Military records – these can often be obtained and provide useful family information, particularly about a person’s parents.
- Church records – Very useful for marriages, births and sometimes deaths. Very often in kinship cases we are going pretty far back in time and needing to prove family histories from other countries. Local church records are a good source of documents and leads to other documents.
- Cemetery records and tombstones. These are often indexed and searchable. And yes – I’ve gone to local cemeteries myself and taken a picture or two to use as evidence.
- Details within documents – Sometimes documents prove more than what you got them for, and/or provide great leads. For example, death certificates show marital status and also show the relationship of the “informant”. Marriage records list parents. Immigration records list family members and relations. Birth certificates from many places list “number of children born to this mother” (which can either be very helpful or cause a need for some ‘splaining)
The records above are just a few of the more common techniques and sources. Every case presents unique proof issues. It helps to look at the proof with a creative eye and open mind.
Next post – Kinship Proof When We Don’t Have a Witness with First Hand Knowledge