Main contributor: Gena Philibert-Ortega
Judge gavel on book in library
Judge gavel on book in library

Court records are documents created during legal cases brought to a court. Different types of courts exist (for example, district and supreme courts); therefore, different kinds of court records and what types of legal hearings they hear will also exist.

"Whether appearing as litigants, witnesses, jurors, appointees to office, petition signatories, or in some other role, surprisingly few people have escaped mention in court records at some time during their lives."[1] While we may consider court cases that our ancestor was a party of, such as a divorce, it's important to remember our ancestors' FAN Club (Friends, Associates, and Neighbors) and how they may be mentioned in the court cases of others or they may be involved as jurors, attorneys, or judges.

We also must not assume our ancestor was never a party to a court case. Not searching court cases can mean missing out on valuable information.

Types of court records

Like any record, court records can differ according to location, time period, and type of case. Learning more about the time period, history, and what types of court cases exist where your ancestor lived can help you identify possible records.

Court records may involve legal cases such as:

  • Guardianships
  • Adoptions
  • Divorce
  • Lawsuits
  • Land
  • Probate
  • Name changes
  • Institutionalization
  • Criminal cases
  • Naturalizations

Court records may include these types of documents:

  • Indexes
  • Case files
  • Inventories
  • Witness Lists
  • Wills
  • Court Orders

Information found in court records

Court records may include the following information:

  • Date
  • Name/s
  • Age
  • Residential address
  • Marital status
  • Family relations
  • Inventory of items owned
  • Health information
  • Criminal actions
  • Witness statements

Depending on the case, court records can provide in-depth information about an ancestor's life that is not found elsewhere. For example, if you find mention in a historical newspaper that your ancestor was party to a criminal act (either the perpetrator or the victim), accessing the court case will provide pages of charges, testimony, and outcome of that case, giving you a more complete story than just the newspaper accounts can provide.

A court case may also help to explain such things as a disappearance (the couple were divorced or a person died) or why a child no longer lives with the family (guardianship or adoption). People who are more difficult to research, such as the poor, might be found in any number of court cases, including guardianships or bankruptcy, to name a few.

Conducting an exhaustive online search of available court records for the location and time your ancestor lived is worthwhile. Even if you are unaware of any court cases, such as a divorce that they were involved in, an index search of nearby courthouses might uncover records you were unaware of.

Locating court records

Antique wooden storage boxes in a Archive
Antique wooden storage boxes in a Archive

Some court records and indexes can be found online through genealogy websites. To find available court records on a genealogy website, use the website's catalog and search by location or subject. The MyHeritage website lists court records under the category "Government, Land, Court & Wills." It is also possible that court records may be found under other subject categories as well.

Most court record research must be done in an archive or a courthouse. You may need to travel or hire someone if you do not live in your ancestor's hometown.

In some cases, you can write or email the court to ask for a lookup. This will require payment of a fee. In some cases, they may have an online form to fill out. Some courthouses may have an index available online, and from there, you can access a case number that can then be used to order copies. However, this tends to be only available for cases from the latter part of the 20th century. Older case files may be archived and require an emailed request.

Not all court records are found at the courthouse. In some cases, they may be stored offsite at a court archive, at a county or local archive, or through a national archive (if the records have to do with a federal court, for example). Learn more by searching the websites for the court of interest and nearby archive catalogs. Contacting a professional genealogist or researcher familiar with that area might also help to locate possible relevant records.

There are cases where court records are kept in an unexpected place, such as a state archive or a university archive. Consider searching archive catalogs such as ArchiveGrid for possible records. Expand your search to include the name of the location and the keywords "court records" since they may not be indexed by each name involved.

Another source that can be helpful in locating the existence of a court record is newspapers. Newspapers have historically printed articles and notices, including divorces, lawsuits, land matters, and criminal cases. Searching your ancestor's historical newspapers (newspapers for the location/s they lived in) by the ancestor's name may locate court cases you were unaware of. From there, you can contact the court about ordering the records.

Search court records on MyHeritage

Explore more about court records