When my ancestor Elias Van Court died in 1750 in New Jersey, he left everything to his wife Ann "as long as she lives".

abstract of will (from "Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New Jersey, First Series, Vol XXX: Calendar of New Jersey Wills, Administrations, etc. Volume II - 1730-1750")

Ann lived another 29 years, dying in 1779 in Morristown, NJ, having never remarried ("History of the First Presbyterian Church - Morristown, NJ - Part 1 - Records of Trustees and Session, from 1742-1882”)

Shouldn't there need to be some more legal proceedings at that point, to decide how to distribute her possessions? But there's nothing in the subsequent will books "Volume V - 1771-1780" or "Volume VI - 1781-1785".

It has been surmised that she was living with her son John when she died, and his will is recorded when he dies in 1797:

John Van Court will

Even if she died without a will, some kind of paperwork should be filed so all the children knew they "got their fair share", yes?

Here's a transcription of Elias' will:

Imprimus it is my Will and I do Order that in the first place all my just Debts and Funeral Charges be paid and satisfied. Item - I give and bequeath to my loving wife Ann Van Court all my Real and fast estate to her so long as she shall live. Item - I give and bequeath to my four Daughters viz: To my Daughter Agnes the sum of two Pound. To my Daughter Jane the sum of two pound. To my Daughter Ann the sum of five pound. To my Daughter Elizabeth the sum of five pound all to be money at eight shillings the pence. Item – it is will that the aforesaid Legacies shall not be paid to my four Daughters aforesaid till the Decease of my wife, Ann Van Court each of the Legacies aforesaid. I give my Daughter aforesaid or to the heirs of their Body. Item – it is my Will and I do Order that all my Lands either in the County of Middlesex or Somerset after the Decease of my Wife shall be Sold at Public Vandus (Auction?) and the money that the said Lands shall fetch or come to shall be equally Divided among my five Sons (namely) Moses, Thomas, Samuel, John and Michael and likewise all the moveable estate to be sold by Vanduo (?) (after my Wife Decease) and Divided among my five Sons aforesaid that is to say all movable that belong to the Plantation, or Dry Hide or Groon, or Leather that ine bo (?) in the Tannfah (?) is what is intended by moveable Estate. Item – is my will that in case my younger Son Michael should Outlive his mother and not be of the full age of twenty one year that then the Lands before mentioned shall not be Sold till he comes to the age of twenty one, and then Sell the Lands as forsaid and make Division of the money as aforementioned excepting that I order that my Son Samuel shall has Ten pounds in money more then his equal share of his Brothers out of his said Land. Item – it is my will that if my youngest Son Michael aforesaid should Die before his full age of twenty one and his mother Dead likewise that then the land may be Sold as aforesaid and his part to be equally divided among the four surviving Brothers namely Moses Thomas Samuel and John and his part of the movable estate in like manner. Item – it is my Will that if any of my five mentioned Sons should Die before full age and without lawful heir their part to be equally Divided to the Servivours of my five Sons beforementioned. Item – I will and I Order that all the moveable Estate that is belonging to my House of Household stuff shall be equally divided among my four Daughters before mentioned after their Mothers Decease besides the Legacies given before mentioned. Item – it is my Will and I do hereby Order that my two Sons Elias and Daniel shall have the sums of five pounds apiece paid to them or to their heirs one year after the Decease of my wife Ann Van Court which Sum I give unto my two sons aforr’d Namely Elias and Daniel to cut off and entirely debar and forever exclude they or either of their heirs from claiming or coming in for any part of my Estate for ever they having their Portions already paid to them and every thing as aforwaid I give to my Children and to their heirs for over and I do likewise make and Ordain my dearly beloved wife my Son Moses Van Court and my brother in Law Daniel Cooper to be my Executors of this my last Will and Testament and I do hereby Disallow Revoke and Annul all and every other Testament will Legacies and Executor by me in any ways before this time named Willed & Bequeathed ratifying and confirming this and no other to be my last Will and Testament In Witness whereof I have herounts (?) set my hand and Seal this day and year above written.

  • 1
    Have you seen the actual will made by Elias? (I'm guessing that's a summary, albeit better than most). I'd suggest that the answer would be given by the actual will. My initial suspicion is that the will leaves Ann with only a life interest in the estate - she gets any rent, interest, etc, but she doesn't get full ownership. That ownership will be held by Elias' trustees. The will, I'd guess, will also dictate who gets ownership and how, of the residual estate, after her death. Hence no need for any extra process. This is just a theory based on UK experience.
    – AdrianB38
    May 24, 2021 at 9:03
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    As AdrianB38 says, these are abstract or summaries of wills, and not the full will, nor other probate documents that may exist. Hence other information may be available. The second summary you suggest is that of Elias-1750's son John, but the way it reads suggests it is that of a brother John of Elias-1750. The nominal bequest to nephew John as heir-at-law I think likely serves as evidence the will writer was aware that he did have blood heirs (the nephew) even though he was giving all else to a non-blood person, his wife. This may protect the will from successful challenge.
    – RobertShaw
    May 25, 2021 at 20:07
  • 2
    I've added a transcription of the will, you were right that Elias had planned everything ahead of time, so nothing needed to be figured upon Ann's death. It's not the world's most straightforward will, but it would be enough to prevent needing a second probate when Ann died. May 27, 2021 at 1:49
  • 2
    Eventually you get used to the typical strategies that are followed in these wills and start to expect to see certain methods used. For instance, how fathers attempt to protect heiress daughters from gold digging husbands before married women could hold property in their own right.
    – AdrianB38
    May 27, 2021 at 8:52
  • Could you add (or clarify) your sources for the images you posted, so people reading this later who are new to research in this period can understand where you found the abstracts? Presumably they're in the sources you cited in between the two images, but spelling it out even more will aid the beginner.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jun 1, 2021 at 6:32

1 Answer 1


Ann lived another 29 years, dying in 1779 in Morristown, NJ, having never remarried.

Check New Jersey historical state statutes if possible and find out what the laws about probate were at the time. Things to look out for:

  • Try to find state statutes or legislative records as close to but before the year of death as you can
  • keywords to try when searching for laws online: the phrase "revised statutes"
  • Look for any provisions which give a minimum value, under which the estate doesn't have to go through the probate process
  • Look for research guides about early probate and finding aids

I listed 'look for research guides' last but the sensible thing to do would be to look for how-tos on probate records from this era first, since the authors might answer some of the other questions I raised in the 'what to look for' part of my answer.

You could also try looking for articles in genealogical publications for articles about people in New Jersey in that period, to see what the authors have to say about the cases they've found.

Bear in mind that probate can take years if not decades to be completed. You may miss something if your search is too narrow in time. You may find that her estate wasn't fully settled until one of her heirs died and then things need to be handled in order to finish that person's probate, e.g. in order to sell land.

The will says:

I give and bequeath to my loving wife Ann Van Court all my Real and fast estate to her so long as she shall live.

As you've noted, there are elaborate instructions about how things are supposed to be divided after her demise. Whenever land is involved, follow the land records. You may not find records until the land needed to be sold.

In addition to looking for the land records themselves, look for legal notices in newspapers, items about land transactions, or other information about the land changing hands. Check your local public library or genealogical societies to see if you can get remote access to collections of early American newspapers.

Given all the information in the will about events that shouldn't happen until one of the heirs reaches a majority, I would begin by making a full review of all the later record you have for this family and creating a family timeline. Try to determine when each person in the will comes of age (you may need to check state statutes, the state constitution, or the legistative records to determine the exact age of majority or when heirs are usually allowed to sign off on land sales).


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