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Norwegian skifter -- Probate Records
by John Follesdal
 

    Norwegian probate records are the third major source of information that we use in our genealogy research.  Probate records are, like church records and census records, a primary source, while other sources, such as  bygdebøker, are compiled or secondary sources.
 

The middle ages

    The division of a deceasedís property was originally handled informally by the surviving members of the family without any governmental involvement. However, if the deceased owned real estate that had been in the family for several generations (so-called odelsgods) it was common for the surviving family members to create a written document (skiftebrev)that specified their agreement as to the division of that property. Several such skiftebrev have been printed in a collection called Diplomatarium Norvegicum.  This collection is available on a searchable database on the Internet at www.dokpro.uio.no/dipl_norv/diplom_field_eng.html.
    The term odelsgods is one that you may come across when you research your Norwegian ancestors.  If a farm stayed in the same family for a sufficiently long time it became known as odelsgods because of the unique legal rights that attached to the farm under the law called odelsrett.  The origins of the odelsrett stretch back into the viking ages.   Basically it is law that allows a family member to redeem a family farm that has been sold out of the family.  Under the ancient Norwegian Gulatings law, a farm had to be in the family for six generations before the odelsrett attached to the farm.  King Magnus Lagabøte's law from 1274 decreased this time period to sixty years, and Christian IV's law from 1604 decreased the time period to 30 years.  Finally, in 1687, Christian V's law decreased the time period to 20 years, and this time period is still in use today.
    If a family farm that had acquired odels status was sold out of the family, the descendants of the owner that sold the farm could redeem the family farm within a specified time period. (There were strict rules as to which descendant had the right over other descendants to redeem the farm).  In 1811 the time period for redemption was 5 years, and in 1857 the time period was reduced to 3 years. The redemption was made by filing a law suit (called an odelssak) in which the plaintiff would have to prove that the farm had been in his familyís ownership for the required time period.  If the law suit was successful, the plaintiff could redeem the farm by paying the assessed value of the farm.  Needless to say, an odelssak is an invaluable source of genealogical information, and you will frequently see references to such law suits in a bygdebok.
 

The 1600ís

    In the late 1600ís concern over the rights of those who were not legally of age led to the establishment of a formal probate proceeding under the supervision of the sorenskriver (the local magistrate).  In the cities the probate proceeding was handled by the byfogd or magistrat (the city magistrate).  The formal probate proceeding was instituted in 1687 when King Christian V signed into law new probate regulations that required a formal probate if any of the following conditions existed:
  1. One or more heirs were not of age;
  2. One or more heirs had moved away and could not attend the probate proceeding;
  3. One or more heirs lived abroad; or
  4. There were no direct descendants to inherit the deceasedís property.
    Despite this new law we frequently find that no probate was held if the decedent was poor and had left no assets to distribute. Thus, if the person was a poor husmann we may find that no probate was held.  In addition, in 1869 a new law was passed which provided that an official probate was not required if the assets of the estate were less than 100 speciedaler (an old currency).
    With regards to minors, the law prior to 1869 provided that males were not considered as being of age until they were 25 years old for purposes of financial transactions.  If they were between 18 to 25 years old they needed a verger (a guardian) for any financial transactions.  If they were under age 18 they were considered underage for all purposes.  Prior to 1863 unmarried women were considered as not being of age their entire life.  In 1863 this law was changed so that adult unmarried women were considered to be of age.  Married women were also considered as not being of age their entire life until 1888.
    All heirs who were not of age had to have a verger (guardian) appointed to represent them in a probate proceeding.  An uncle was usually appointed as the guardian for a child, while a brother usually served as the guardian for a widow.  The guardian of a widow, by the way, was called a lagverge.  A probate also required two independent assessors whose job it was to assess the property of the decedent.  These assessors were usually from the local community and were not related to the deceased.  The lensmann (sheriff) and the local magistrate were also involved in the probate process.
    One final item to note is that if a widow or widower wanted to remarry, he or she would have to provide proof that the probate of his or her deceased spouse had been completed.  Furthermore, if a widow or widower wanted to continue to live in the home without having an official probate of the assets of their deceased spouse, then they would have to seek royal permission to do so.
 

The Skifteprotokoller

    Originally all probate records were entered into one record Ė the Skifteprotokoll.  Gradually the local magistrates began a more complex record keeping system, and by the mid-1800ís we find three separate records:
  1. the registreringsprotokoller in which each new probate was registered, the heirs are identified, and each piece of property is identified and its value assessed;
  2. the skiftebehandlingsprotokoll or skifteforhandlingsprotokoll in which negotiations and procedural matters were entered; and
  3. the slutningsprotokoll or utlodningsprotokoll in which the distribution of property is described.
    One caveat should be noted: until 1820 or so, separate probate records were maintained for members of the clergy, members of the military as well as miners and teachers, and the family members of these persons.
    The protokoller that the sorenskriver maintained were kept chronologically which makes it difficult to locate the probate records for a specific person.  Skifteregister (indexes) have been created, however, and we always start with the index in order to locate a specific probate record.  In general, the registreringsprotokoll will have all of the information we need, so we can skip the two other records.
 

The contents of a probate record

    Norwegian probate records can be difficult to read because they were handwritten in Gothic script.  Prior to studying such a record it is therefore important to read up on how to decipher old Gothic script.  When you do sit down to study the probate of your ancestor you should first determine the structure of the document and then begin to decipher the words.  Skip over the words that you cannot decipher and go back to them as you become more familiar with the handwriting used in the particular document that you are studying.
    The structure of the probate record follows a fairly standard format.  The first paragraph or two will usually identify the date the probate was registered, the name of the deceased, the name of a surviving spouse and other heirs, the names of the verger (guardians of minors), and perhaps the names of the lensmann, the assessors, and the sorenskriver.  It is common to find that an heir has been omitted from the list of heirs, so you should always double check further down in the document where you will find a list of the persons who received property when the estate was distributed.  (In probate records from the mid-1800's and onward this information is found in the slutningsprotokoll or utlodningsprotokoll).
    The main body of the document will contain a balance sheet, very similar to the balance sheet that accountants use today. It will have a list of assets followed by a list of liabilities (debts). The list of assets is quite detailed, and contains not only information about any real estate that the decedent owned, but also a list of personal property such as clothing, furniture, farming equipment, etc.  The list of debts is also quite detailed.
    At the end of the document you will find information about the utlodning - the distribution of the property (who received what).  As noted above, this list can be more complete than the list of heirs found at the beginning of the document.  With regards to the distribution of property, you should also keep in mind that for many years the law provided that a son would inherit twice as much as a daughter. This did not change until 1854 when the law was changed to provide for equal division between brother and sister.
    Norwegian probate records are an important source of information for a genealogist.  Not only do these records give us information about the names of family members, but we also find a wealth of information about the living conditions of our ancestors.  The probate records paint a picture for us which allows us to see how our ancestors lived.  While it is time consuming to translate and study these records, the results are well worth the effort.  As with so many other Norwegian records, you can order microfilm copies of Norwegian probate records at your local mormon Family History Center.
 
 

 John Follesdal
Copyright 1998