How to Find Chicago Probate Records

Due to Chicago Fire losses, probate records begin in 1871, but wills date back to 1850.

Search Wills Filed 1850-1915, Cook County, Illinois by June B. Barekman, available in digital format on FamilySearch or the Wills Index, 1850-1975 available on microfilm at the Cook County Circuit Court Archive.

If you find a match, contact the Circuit Court Archives to check on availability.

Many Chicagoans had no will or probate associated with their deaths, but for those who did, the case file can provide valuable genealogical information.

This page explains how to search for probate records at the Cook County Circuit Court Archives. If you can't do the research in person, see the FAQ for how to obtain the records from a distance.

Check the Indexes

To search indexes, visit the Cook County Circuit Court Archives on the eleventh floor of the Daley Center, 50 W. Washington, Room 1113, open weekdays 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. You'll need to go through security to access the building so pack light and leave things like cameras, pocket knives, and banjos home.

The first step is to check the Probate Deceased Index available on microfilm at the Archives. The index is divided into sections by years but it does not include death dates.

If you are researching a common name, you may find more than one possibility for a match. If there are just a couple of files, ask for both of them to be brought in from the warehouse. If there are many possibilities, ask the Archives staff for advice. There is a way to find more information about the cases before viewing them, but it involves using docket books that are stored on another floor of the Daley Center and they are not easily accessible.

If you don't find a match for a death that occured late in the year, check the following index. It's possible the case was filed later than expected. If you still don't find a match, check the Wills Index. If there is nothing there, it's likely there are no records to be found.

Order the File from the Warehouse

Once you have a case number, fill out a request form to have the probate file brought to the Archives from the off-site warehouse for no charge. It will arrive in about a week (call to confirm it's there before making the return trip) and will be available for viewing and/or copying for about 30 days.

Return to View the File and Make Copies

After you view the file, you can make copies using your cell phone camera (no digital cameras are allowed in the building) or a portable flatbed scanner. See the FAQ for tips. You can also use the copier at the Archives to make paper copies for their standard rates: $2.00 for the first page, $.50 for the next 19 pages, and $25 per copy thereafter. The copy machine is in good working order and prints on letter, legal, or 11 x 17 paper.

Probate records from 1976 to the present are held by the Circuit Court's Probate Division, Room 1202 in the Richard J. Daley Center, 50 West Washington Street in Chicago.

You can search a probate index online on Probate Case Search page. A Probate Wills Search is also available.

In a Nutshell

Cook County probate research is a multi-step process: find a case number in an index at the Circuit Court Archives, order in the file, and return to view and/or make copies. You can find some bound probate records, including some wills, at Ancestry.com but the files are not online. Files can be very large. They almost always include a "Proof of Heirship" document that is rich with information. They may also include household and funeral bills. Color copies can be made for free using a cell phone camera or a small portable scanner if you visit in person.

FAQ

What if I can't visit the Archives in person?

If you can't visit in person, you can request a search by mail and have paper copies sent to you or you can hire a local researcher.

There are some advantages to having someone make the trip for you. First, if the file is unusually large and you have a tight budget, you can ask the researcher to choose which documents to copy. And, if the researcher scans or photographs the documents, the color images can make it look like you're holding the actual records in your hand.

Kim makes regular visits to the Circuit Court Archives. See her Genlighten profile for more information about her retrieval service.

Are Cook County probate records online?

Not really. If you want to view a case file, you'll have to visit the Daley Center or have a copy made for you. But, there are a few things you can do from a distance.

You can search a modern probate index online on Probate Case Search page. You can also search for wills on the Probate Wills Search page.

There are also a significant number of bound probate records available through Ancestry's Illinois, Wills and Probate Records, 1772-1999 collection that appear to have been digitized from the same films that are available through FamilySearch. The volumes include administrators' bonds and letters, grants of administration, guardians inventories and bonds, grants of guardianship, index to minors and conservators estates, and wills.

Begin by searching these records. If you don't find a match, try browsing. Many of the volumes have indexes in the front.

FamilySearch includes a collection titled Illinois Probate Records, 1819-1988 but no Cook County records are included.

How large are probate files?

Probate files vary in size, ranging from a small number of documents to multiple letter-legal boxes packed tight with records. Early cases are likely to be a stack of tri-folded documents, ranging from one to five inches thick.

What's in a typical probate file?

Probate files may include letters of administration, an inventory, a record of an estate sale, accounting, bills from creditors, and a report of final disbursement.

Most importantly, Cook County probate files usually contain a "Proof of Heirship" document rich in genealogical information. For example, in one case, a son, when asked to name the children born to his mother, included siblings who were born and died before the Chicago Fire and between census years.

Files may also contain bills from creditors that can paint an interesting picture of the deceased's life. Bills for funeral expenses are common but files may also include bills for items such as home repairs, medical expenses, food, and clothing.

Any tips for making digital copies of files?

Yes. If you're planning to use your cell phone to take pictures, consider installing the ScannerPro app. It's well-suited to the task.

If storage space on your phone is limited, plan ahead so you can transfer images to your computer or the cloud while you work.

Some of the early tri-folded documents may be hard to flatten. Consider taking weights unless you want your fingers in the photos.

Small, portable flatbed scanners are allowed but access to power outlets is inconvenient and, quite frankly, it gets in the way of other patrons. A fully-charged laptop with a scanner that is powered by USB (think CanoScan LiDE 120) works great. Take a piece of heavy posterboard (doubling it works great) cut to the size of the scanner bed. It makes it easy to hold the tri-folded documents flat and in place while closing the cover.