RootsTech 2015

Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Getting Started with Spanish Language or Hispanic Genealogy

Note: My blog can be instantly translated into any of 60 different languages by clicking on the Google translation link to the right. Mi blog puede ser traducido inmediatamente en cualquiera de los 60 idiomas diferentes haciendo clic en el enlace de la traducción de Google a la derecha.

Many of those people presently living in the United States are recent immigrants and even if they speak English, they have parents or grandparents who spoke another language. Many studies indicate that Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the world based on the number of native speakers. It is not surprising that there are huge numbers of Spanish language genealogy and family history resources. But for those with Spanish-language ancestors, there are also a number of records available in English. Many of these resources are now available online. This post is a basic introduction to the records and resources, in both English and Spanish, that are available for doing Spanish Language family history research. Many of the English language family history websites are also available in Spanish.

You can use Google Translate to translate entire pages of the Internet from English to Spanish or from Spanish to English.

There are a number of helpful books on Spanish and Hispanic genealogy. I have found these books from Professor George Ryskamp to be most helpful:
  • Ryskamp, George R. Finding Your Hispanic Roots. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1997. Available only in English.
  • Ryskamp, George R. Tracing Your Hispanic Heritage. Riverside, Calif: Hispanic Family History Research, 1984.
  • Ryskamp, George R., and Peggy Ryskamp. A Student's Guide to Mexican American Genealogy. Phoenix, Ariz: Oryx Press, 1996.
Where do I start? Basic online websites
The first place to start is the Research Wiki. This website is available also in Spanish. (Esta sitio de la web está disponible en español también). These resources give both an overview of how to do family history research, but also provide links to basic resources in individual countries. is also a major source for original Spanish-language records from a variety of sources. See the Historical Record Collections. In both the Historical Record Collections and in the Research Wiki, search for records by the place of origin.

Online family tree programs are helpful in connecting with relatives around the world. Family Tree is available in Spanish as is the Family Tree program.

Here are some specific online resources. There is a Getting Started page for every country in the world on the Research Wiki.
There are dozens of additional web sites. Search for genealogy (genealogía) in the country of origin. 

If you have questions about Hispanic genealogy, you are welcome to send them to me in either English or Spanish. Si tiene preguntas acerca de la genealogía hispana, le invitamos a enviarlas a mí, ya sea en Inglés o Español.

Phishing with Phony Requests -- Beware of false email and social media requests

I have noticed a constant rise in false requests coming through email and social media. In this busy season of the year, it may be all too easy to click on a phony request amid the general online clutter. I am getting probably two or three a day lately.

Phishing is the process of sending out a false email or other type of contact through social media with the expectation that the person receiving the request will respond with either personal information such as account or credit card numbers or will validate an email address for further unsolicited advertising.

Here are two types of contact I have seen just this week:

Emails announcing that one of my bank or credit accounts has a problem. 
These are the worst type of phishing. They are attempts to compromise a bank or credit account. Either my wife and I have received these requests from website purporting to be American Express, PayPal and even our own bank. The request usually outlines some vague problem with the account that needs immediate attention. The emails appear at a glance, to be valid, with logos and official looking formatting.

I have gotten to the point that I do not respond to or open such requests at all. If the request even looks vaguely like a valid issue, I will trash the email and then contact the company directly either by phone or with an address I have used in the past. In the case of PayPal, I have simply stopped opening anything that comes to me unsolicited, even if it looks like a "monthly statement." If I need to find out anything about my account, I go to the website and log on directly. Many of these email requests come with a threat that the account will be closed immediately if I do not respond. Since that type of request comes regularly and the account has never been terminated, I do not even bother to check on this type of email at all. I just trash them permanently.

You might want to know that throwing something in the trash does not erase it from your computer. I suggest emptying your trash can periodically.

Social Networking requests that appear valid but are phishing for personal information
The bogus requests I have noticed most recently, come on Google+ and are from people around the world, usually but not always, seemingly younger women, although there are a percentage of younger men also. Some of these are from the Far East or the Middle East and appear to be sincere requests for connections. I always look at the page for these and almost anyone else I do not recognize. What I find is that these people usually have no recognizable contacts. I am the first or one of very few people they have contacted online. I suspect that many of these requests are generated by pornography businesses just from the general nature of the posts on the person's website. I simply ignore any such request.

Very occasionally, I ignore a request that comes back with additional information and it is approved, but that is very rare. I now routinely ignore a fairly large number of social networking requests and occasionally go back through my "friends" to eliminate those that post inappropriate posts.

If you want to connect with me on Facebook, Google+ etc., I suggest you edit your personal settings to clearly show that you are associated with a valid entity or interest. I try to limit my contacts to those in the genealogical community.

Some people reject all social networking links and even refuse to sign in to Facebook or other such websites simply because of fear. If I took that attitude, I would probably never get out of bed in the morning. I realize that there are dangers inherent in social networking, but I have had similar requests for years by telephone and regular mail. I would guess that nearly 80% of all the telephone calls we get are unsolicited commercial calls in the nature of a phishing scheme. But I do not stop using a telephone because of those calls. The calls just become another type of modern background noise that my wife and I ignore.

Other people reject all social networking out of fear of identity theft. The key here is to never put anything online you do not want to be used. So people also are threatened by "getting too much email." Sorry, but this is the result of being online. I usually get over two hundred emails and responses to my reader subscriptions a day. I just view this as a minor overhead item and work through them efficiently. It is really nice to have a delete button.

I think the main problem is when people start to take all this noise as a personal threat. It is not more a personal threat than any other type of advertising. I see ads for bogus businesses all the time. Part of successfully living in an information world is the ability to filter out unwanted signals. If a phishing scam gets too clever, we contact the target company with a complaint. Most of these complaint are gratefully received by the target company. We always send a copy of the offending email etc. so they can block the sender.

This is a serious problem for the unwary. But it is less difficult than many other much more serious issues in modern life. I am much more concerned about driving here with the Utah drivers than I am about anything online.

Remember the rule, throw it in the trash if it smells bad.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Cursive Writing Issue -- A Genealogical Conundrum

Page of text (folio 160v) from a Carolingian Gospel Book (British Library, MS Add. 11848), written in Carolingian minuscule. Text is Vulgate Luke 23:15-26.
One of the most common issues raised in light of the movement to abandon the teaching of cursive writing in the public schools is the claim that somehow the children of tomorrow will be unable to read the documents of the past. In the past, I have also raised this same issue. One claim is that children in the United States will be unable to read the Declaration of Independence.

By Original authors were the barons and King John of England. Uploaded by Earthsound. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I have had a lot of time to re-think the whole issue of cursive writing from a genealogical viewpoint and I am no longer sure that all of the arguments in favor of teaching cursive are still valid. I am certainly not going to argue with claims that learning cursive helps children acquire fine motor skills and other such related arguments, but I think that genealogy gives us a different perspective on the issue. I have included two documents: a copy of the Magna Carta and a copy of a portion of the Bible. I would venture to say that there is nothing taught in any U.S. grammar or grade school that would help a student to read either of these documents although they are in technically, they are written in cursive. However, both documents are clearly and completely available in perhaps thousands or perhaps millions of different copies, all perfectly readable by anyone who can read English. I might also add that both documents were originally written in Latin in the versions shown above. The Bible, of course, was written in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. 

My point is rather simple. If you begin doing genealogical research, you will very soon find out that reading cursive script is a completely different skill than being able to write in cursive script. Can you tell me the style of cursive you were taught in grade school? (Assuming, of course, that you were taught cursive). Do you know what style of cursive is taught today in the schools that still teach cursive? Here is a brief quote from Wikipedia on the present-day history of cursive:
After the 1960s, a movement originally begun by Paul Standard in the 1930s to replace looped cursive with cursive italic penmanship resurfaced. It was motivated by the claim that cursive instruction was more difficult than it needed to be: that conventional (looped) cursive was unnecessary, and it was easier to write in cursive italic. Because of this, a number of various new forms of cursive italic appeared, including Getty-Dubay, and Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting.
Unless you are a teacher and familiar with curriculum development and teaching, most of this will be totally unfamiliar to you. Here is a sample of Getty-Dubay as it is currently taught in many home schools and public schools:

I might observe that this is markedly different than what I was taught in school. Here is a sample of Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting:

In fact, there are dozens of different forms of handwriting taught around the world, most of which are very different than the style taught when old folks like me were in school. 

To repeat my point, learning to write in cursive, especially if the style taught is much different than what was taught a few years ago, has nothing whatsoever to do with the ability to read historical examples of cursive text. When we wring our hands over the lack of cursive in grade schools, what are we talking about? 

My father was taught to write in cursive but practically no one could read his handwriting. I would venture to say that very few of the genealogists I work with on a day to day basis probably do much handwriting. When I fill out forms, which is about the only handwriting I do anymore, I print. 

Maybe there is an entirely different issue here. Maybe the real issue involves the ability to learn unfamiliar information rather than being an issue of whether or not a particular form of cursive is or is not taught in our public schools. If you do not understand what I am saying, I suggest you go back to the 1860 United States Census and start reading names. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Missing Links. -- The Last (or First) Link Back to Adam

Warning Note: In writing this blog post, I am not claiming that any historical or Biblical figure did or did not exist. I am merely examining the historical record to illustrate those ancestral connections that cannot be verified using generally accepted genealogical evidence and record sources.

As genealogists, we live in two worlds: one world that is governed by verifiable sources and another world that is a fantasy land of ancient pedigrees. I got started with this issue (oh, no, not again!!!) when my wife found Vol. XIX, July, 1928, No. 3, of the The Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine. Pasted into the front of this issue was a huge fold out pedigree of several prominent Utah pioneers tracing their ancestry back to Adam. This started me thinking. Here is a photo of the unfolded insert:

Then I thought, what if I search in Family Tree for Adam born in the Garden of Eden with a wife named Eve. Here is a screenshot of the results:

The most interesting entry is the one that has his burial place as "Lone, Vest-Agder, Norway." I was also fascinated by the death place of Olaha, Shinehah, East of Eden. I was wondering who transported to the body to Norway and how that was accomplished. I was also fascinated to learn the names of two more of Adam's children; Awan bint Adam and Azura Bint Adam. It was comforting to know that all these people were deceased.

I decided to follow the line down to see what happened. Oh, I almost forgot, the Adam I choose to follow did not have any sources. I was wondering if the person who added this to their own pedigree had read the Bible. The did have a picture however. Here is a screenshot:

I have cut off the names of those who have edited this entry, for obvious reasons. Well, this one was a dry well, it showed a son, Seth ben Adam, 2d Patriarch, but no children for Seth. I guess I will have to try another. The next one had the couple of Seth ben Adam married to Azura bint Adam with one child, Enos ben Seth. I am guessing these people must have spoken Hebrew or a related language. 

OK, I will not bore you with the clicking down through the names. Unfortunately, I not able to verify any of the sources, since none were listed. Apparently the first group of descendants all lived in the same town or subdivision; Olaha, Shinehah, East of Eden. I did get to an interesting name rather quickly; Barakiel ben Enos. I found out the following from Wikipedia (I am really glad that at least I have a reliable source):
Barachiel (Heb. ברכיאל "Bārkiʼēl", Lightning of God; Arabic: بُراقيل "Burāqīl") is one of the seven Archangelsin Eastern Orthodox tradition.
In the Third Book of Enoch he is described as one of the angelic princes, with a myriad of some 496,000 ministering angels attending him. He is counted as one of the four ruling seraphim, and counted the prince of the second heaven and of the order of confessors. He is described in the Almadel of Solomon as one of the chief angels of the first and fourth chora.[1] He is regarded as the angel of lightning.[2]
I was puzzled how Barakiel or Barachiel got born in Olaha, Shinehah, East of Eden, but I guess that is one of the mysteries. However, there was no mention of him being fathered by Enos. 

So, I thought I might just try another line. I went back to my search and choose another Adam (I was not certain if the people who added all these Adams checked for duplicates or really thought there was a whole congregation of Adams out there to choose from). 

Third try. This one was buried in the Lone and Dreary Wilderness. I know exactly where that is. It is located just west of Provo in Skull Valley. Just in case you are losing faith, here is the screenshot of this entry:

This one also had a son named Seth and so forth. Still no sources. I am really puzzled where these people got this information, if it was not in the Bible. But I started clicking down through the descendants. No birth or death information, just the reassuring note that they are all deceased. I did recognize all of the names of the descendants. I guessed that this submitter had read the same books I had. I was interested to get to Noah to see which of the three sons would be listed. Apparently, this person needed to do a little more research, only one son, Shem, was listed. I wondered how he or she came to the conclusion to neglect to mention the other sons and their wives. I also wondered if a DNA study would give me some conclusive evidence to choose which of the sons I was a descendant from; Shem, Ham or Japheth. 

I finally got down to Arphaxad and apparently these particular genealogical researchers were not big on identifying other family members or wives. Reminded of some other pedigrees I had seen lately. OK, so now we were down to Selah.Whew, a bit more clicking and I was at Abraham. I began to wonder where all the other people came from? I got a little perturbed with this line when I got to Abraham and his wives etc. were not listed. Finally, when I got to Judah, he had two sons and a wife. 

I was a little disturbed when I got to Aaron. He had four sons but none of them had any children. The line went on through Nahshon. Just in case I had forgotten that these people all spoke Hebrew, the line continued with Obed ben Boaz and his son, Jesse ben Obed. Hmm. Then it got really strange. King David was married to Maacha von Gessur ( a German??). Dates started showing up about here. Oh dear, this line ended with Amazja von Juda (still speaking German) in 826-773. Back a ways to see what else I could learn. Suddenly, with Rehoboam Rey de Judá, they all started speaking Spanish. Still not a lot of wives around. It is a wonder these lines could keep descending without women. 

By the time I got to Jehoshaphat King of Judah, they were back to speaking English. Its a good thing read  and speak some German, Hebrew and Spanish, I can get along with all my ancestors. Oops, apparently Jehoshaphat must have married a Spanish speaking wife, his son was Jehoram Rey de Judá.

This is getting a little bit ridiculous. I decided to quickly skip ahead through all the Reyes de Judá and see what happened. Oh dear, not again. The line ended with Josia ó José Rey de Judá (apparently, whoever put all this in Family Tree (remember this is coming right out of Family Tree) didn't speak much Spanish when he or she put an accent on the "o." Now I was completely lost with no where to go. I tried another line and that link was missing also. I was at a loss to guess how to find the descendancy line and then I remembered the wonderful Descendancy View. I backtracked to King David. 

I kept following one line until it got to Éloiémaï David in 100 BC and then it started to go backwards with names of of people born with higher numbers. I finally figured out that they must have jumped over the 0 mark and were going positive. Every other generation was an unknown name. I figured I had reached the end of the line.  I am entirely puzzled by all this. I did not find even one entry with a source. 

I finally got tired of the whole thing and decided I had enough when they switched back to Hebrew. I would call this a wild goose chase but what do I know. Here is a screenshot of part of what I found:

The red caution notices were for people who were born before their father could have children or before the father was born. This gave me a lot of confidence in the pedigree. This is the fantasy world I was speaking about at the beginning of this ridiculous post. Oh, wait a minute, this post isn't ridiculous, the pedigrees are. 

Issues Left Over From This Past Year

Instead of my own resolutions for the past year, as the year 2014 comes to a close, it is time for a review of the yet unresolved issues of the year in the larger genealogical community. I have written a couple of posts on my views of the future of genealogy, but it is also important to see where we have been and what yet needs to be done.

Reviewing the issues in my past blog posts involves about 655 posts so far this year. I think that is a good bit off from past years, probably due to the move to Utah and several extended vacations (for me, an extended vacation is anything over 2 days without writing). If you are wondering (which I am sure you are not), I have posted a total of 3550 blog posts since this blog began in November of 2008. My first Genealogy's Star blog post was entitled, "Check out the FamilySearch Wiki" and has had a total of 50 views since it was posted. The format was bad and the writing was pretty amateurish. If I keep writing, I just may learn how before I am condemned to the care center or pass on to my eternal reward.

Oh, I might mention one thing I have learned from living in Provo, Utah for the past few months; the weather reports bear no relationship to the actual weather. I assume that there is a lesson to be learned there about trying to predict what will happen in the future. The reason I say this is because the weather report said there was a 10% chance of rain and it snowed here at our house.

My first post in 2014 was entitled, "I can use my iPad for genealogy." As the year progressed, I think I actually may have used my iPad for genealogy a couple of times. Trying to enter data and make corrections with my clumsy fingers proved to be too frustrating. I am wedded to a keyboard. Sales of this type of device continued to soar and I saw more people carrying them around and using them, but I did not see any sort-of dramatic increase in the expansion of genealogy products for these devices or the popularity of such programs or apps. There were several new apps introduced during 2015, but I have yet to hear anyone talk about using them. I am not sure this is an unresolved issue, but it is something to watch during the upcoming year.

For me, the first really unresolved issue of 2014 was and is the merge function in the Family Tree. My initial 2014 post on this subject was entitled, "Stepping off into the Merging and Searching Morass on FamilySearch." Well, the searching capability of Family Tree has improved dramatically over the year, but we are still at a dead stop as users to any improvements to the merging issue. In fact, I just wrote about this issue again this past month with a series of posts in response to a FamilySearch post on the subject. You can see the last post in the series at "Remaining issues with FamilySearch Family Tree - Part Four, the rest of the story" with links to the earlier posts. It appears that this issue will still be around in 2016, skipping over 2015 altogether.

One ongoing issue I raised early on in 2014 was the issue of the death of cursive writing. See "The Future of Cursive." This is not an issue that will go away. It will only get much, much worse before it gets better. If it ever does. The subject of cursive writing was still a hot topic in 2014, since the education "Common Core standards" do not include cursive writing. See this post on neaToday, the blog of the National Education Association, "Does Cursive Need to Be Taught in the Digital Age?" This post from the NEA gives an overview of the current thought on the subject. I am putting this on my agenda for a post in the near future.

Copyright issues kept surfacing during 2014 as they probably will in the future also. My posts pretty well evolved over the year. I began to see current U.S. Copyright law as major obstacle to innovation, research and the development of large online record repositories. I am still finding books that are clearly not subject to copyright, listed as copyrighted and subject to restricted access merely because the hosts of the databases do not take the time to review the legal copyright status of the material they hold. I also find online repositories claiming copyright to material from the 1800s and before when there is no logical reason for such claims. This is especially true in countries such as the United Kingdom that the claim copyright in perpetuity.

I don't know whether you would call it an issue, but the acquisition of smaller genealogy companies by the the very large companies kept rolling on in 2014. I expect to see several such announcements in 2015 also.

In a return to an old, dusty issue, I still saw several major statements about the universal popularity of genealogy during the year of 2014. The claim that genealogy is one of the most popular pursuits continues to be repeated without a shred of substantiation and I will probably come back to this issue again in the future.

I wrote a lot of posts in 2014 about #RootsTech and I will be attending again this year and presenting and blogging, so I will probably have a lot to say again.

After hearing another sad story yesterday about lost date, I assume the issue of backing up genealogy files will continue off into the foreseeable future and I will likely continue writing about it. I also suffered my own share of this issue when the hard drive in my main computer was crashing and I had to restore all of the contents of my iMac from an Apple Time Machine backup. I found that copying all the data from your drive is only part of the story. I had to upgrade programs and retrieve passwords and am still suffering from the transition.

There were probably a number of other topics that will continue to be addressed in the future. The challenge of information literacy is one of the newer topics I will probably address many times in the coming year. But for now, I will move on to another post on another subject.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Genealogy and Information Literacy

Every time I go to the Brigham Young University Family History Library (many times a week) I see a sign for a University office entitled, "Information Literacy." As I began to notice the sign, I became more and more curious about this academic subject. What is information literacy? Of course, I could search the Internet for the answer and so I did. I immediately found a website for the Association of College and Research Libraries, a Division of the American Library Association with an article entitled, "Introduction to Information Literacy." Here I found the definition of Information Literacy:
Information Literacy is the set of skills needed to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information.
The definition is expanded with a quote from the American Library Association Presidential Committee on Information Literacy. The quote says:
“Ultimately, information literate people are those who have learned how to learn. They know how to learn because they know how knowledge is organized, how to find information, and how to use information in such a way that others can learn from them. They are people prepared for lifelong learning, because they can always find the information needed for any task or decision at hand.”
This definition was extremely interesting to me because for the first time, I had a name and a concept for many of my observations over the years. I have often thought and written about the divide in genealogy between those who have the skills set forth in the description and those who have not acquired those skills. It is sometimes very helpful to know that the thing you are concerned about has a name and that there are people out there studying the issues. It is sort-of like learning that some physical condition you have is really a categorized illness.

I further found it profoundly interesting that the descriptions of observed problem applied so directly to genealogical research. Here is a further quote from the Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report back on January 10, 1989 in Washington, D.C. As you read this, think about the fact that this statement was made at a time when the Internet, as we know it today, was barely in its infancy.
No other change in American society has offered greater challenges than the emergence of the Information Age. Information is expanding at an unprecedented rate, and enormously rapid strides are being made in the technology for storing, organizing, and accessing the ever growing tidal wave of information. The combined effect of these factors is an increasingly fragmented information base---large components of which are only available to people with money and/or acceptable institutional affiliations.
This statement refers to the "ever growing tidal wave of information" at a time when they could not see what that would really mean.

Later on in the same article, there is an outline of the learning process faced by people in every instance of acquiring information:
  • knowing when they have a need for information
  • identifying information needed to address a given problem or issue
  • finding needed information and evaluating the information
  • organizing the information
  • using the information effectively to address the problem or issue at hand.
 This succinctly describes the issues I see genealogical researchers facing nearly every day. Here are some of my own rewriting of these processes in the context of genealogy:

  • Genealogical researchers copy information from existing family trees, accept unsupported conclusions from others and make invalid relational conclusion because they do not know that they have a need for information.
  • When confronted with a difficult family relationship, many genealogical researchers do not know how to identify the information the need to address a given problem or issue. In fact, they cannot recognize when an issue exists.
  • Many genealogical researchers do not know how to find needed information or how to evaluate that information once it is found. Note, finding and evaluating are two separate and important functions.
  • A considerable number of genealogists lack organizational skills and do not know how to adequately use the available genealogical database programs.
  • Even when given the proper information about a particular ancestral relationship, they reject the information because they do not know how to use it.

Of course observing a problem and solving it are also two distinct things. The problems I observe in the genealogical community have their roots in the challenges of society in general. Many genealogically related individuals seem to see that the problems faced by genealogists can be solved by resort to incorporating younger, more computer savvy, people into the genealogical community. That only makes sense if those younger people are informationally literate. Informational Literacy is not just a set of skills used to manipulate computers and similar devices such as smartphones, it is much more complicated than that. As I see it, the lack of Information Literacy among those involved in and promoting genealogy is not limited to any one age group. It is a much deeper reflection of our shallow educational system and the consequences of failing to challenge students in a way that fosters true learning. Preparing students to pass a standardized test is not going to develop Information Literacy.

Here is a final quote from the Association of College and Research Libraries, a Division of the American Library Association on the subject in another article entitled, "Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education."
Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to "recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information." 1 Information literacy also is increasingly important in the contemporary environment of rapid technological change and proliferating information resources. Because of the escalating complexity of this environment, individuals are faced with diverse, abundant information choices--in their academic studies, in the workplace, and in their personal lives. Information is available through libraries, community resources, special interest organizations, media, and the Internet--and increasingly, information comes to individuals in unfiltered formats, raising questions about its authenticity, validity, and reliability. In addition, information is available through multiple media, including graphical, aural, and textual, and these pose new challenges for individuals in evaluating and understanding it. The uncertain quality and expanding quantity of information pose large challenges for society. The sheer abundance of information will not in itself create a more informed citizenry without a complementary cluster of abilities necessary to use information effectively.
Try substituting the word "genealogists" for the word "individuals" and "citizenry" see what I mean.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Ins and Outs of Probate for Genealogists - Part Four - What is Probate?

Probate is a court supervised procedure for the orderly transfer of property after a person's death. At the bottom of this post, you will find links to the previous posts on this process. 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 one event in the history of probate in the United States that could be considered the beginning of modern probate practice was the publication in 1966 of a book by Norman F. Dacey entitled, "How to avoid probate." This national bestseller went through multiple editions and is still popular. The idea was that probate per se was bad and that avoiding probate per se was beneficial. It is true, that some of the fees charged by attorneys for being involved in the probate practice were exorbitant and bore no relation to the amount of work done and that there were some rather simple things that could be done to avoid those costs. Over time, in some states, most of the original issues raised by the book have become less of an issue due to dramatic changes in the probate laws, such as the adoption of the Uniform Probate Code that provided changed the way attorneys were paid for their work.

Over the years, I have found that the main factor driving huge attorney's fees in a probate case has been fighting among the heirs. The vast majority of the cases I handled were routine and the fees were minimal. In fact, if the deceased had spent the money for the estate planning advocated by those promoting an avoidance of probate, the costs would have been many times the actual probate fees. Today's cost for a probate avoidance, estate planning package can run into the thousands of dollars and there are a host of estate planning practitioners who fail to tell their clients the truth about the real costs involved in a probate action, assuming one is needed at all.

That said, 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.

As I mentioned, the size or value of the estate is a crucial factor in the need for either estate planning or for probate. The basic idea involved in the so-called estate planning schemes are a way to transfer all of a person's property to a trust or other entity before death. The reason for this is that in some cases, when an estate reaches a certain value, the government imposes transfer taxes, usually called "estate taxes" on the value of the money and other property transferred to the heirs. The idea of estate planning is to minimize the amount of these taxes and to provide cash to pay the taxes if needed. In the United States presently, there is a "standard estate tax deduction" that changes from year to year. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2015, the standard deduction is $5,430,000. See "In 2015, Various Tax Benefits Increase Due to Inflation Adjustments" from the IRS. You can probably guess that most of us will not have any estate tax liability. You should also realize that the amount of the deduction can change during the year depending on Federal legislation.

The issue with titled property is that specific people "own" the property and if an owner dies, then there is legally no one to sign over the deed or title to the heirs (those who by law or trust or will are supposed to receive the property). A will comes into this procedure as the document containing the wishes of the deceased as to which heirs are to receive the property. The probate action considers the interests of the deceased owner, provides for the payment of debts, provides for the payment of any taxes or fees owed by the deceased, decides who gets the residue of the property in the estate and then orders the executor or personal representative to distribute the property and legally sign any necessary titles or deeds.

If a person dies with a will, they are said to have died testate. If there is no will discovered, then the person is said to have died intestate (i.e. without a will). In the case of a person who dies intestate (without a will) most states in the United States now provide a legal structure that essentially writes a will for the deceased person in a very simple way. This is called an intestate probate procedure. In some cases, if no will was found and no heirs located, the property of the deceased person "escheated to the state." This usually only occurred if there was no subsequent legal owner of the property, i.e. no heirs, and there was actual property that the state wanted to acquire.

One of the "boogymen" raised by the estate planning community is the specter of having the estate escheated to the government. In my experience, this was very rare. However, I had many clients whose first fear upon discussing probate was that all their money and property would go to the state. This is apparently still a scare tactic used by those estate planners in the United States who invite older people to a "free lunch or dinner" to discuss their need for estate planning.

Where do genealogists come into this picture? Well, they all die so their estates may need to be probated, but beyond this The entire probate action, including a will, if one is in existence, provide a rich source of information about an individual and his or her family. In the next post in this series, I will discuss some standard probate procedures. Stay tuned.