Estate Records, 1739-1924

RECORD GROUP: County Clerk
SERIES: Estate Records
DATES: 1730-1924
VOLUME: 6 cubic feet

estate image for webpgae
Note: On July 11, 1815, Bowne’s half-gallon of whiskey was valued at 50 cents.
The Estate Records series consists of the records of 179 individuals, including cases of one minor, one “Negroe,” and 23 women, who died intestate (without wills) in Monmouth County between 1739 and 1924. Bulk of the records are from 1807 to 1844.
Under the New Jersey Constitution, surrogates elected in each county qualify executors and trustees named in wills and appoint administrators for those persons dying without wills or those deemed legally incompetent; serve as custodian of the records of such estates and act as clerk of the Superior Court, Law Division, Probate Part, the court hearing cases involving disputed estates or incapacitated proceedings; and act as clerk of the Family Part of the Court, Chancery Division, which is responsible for adoption matters.

The Surrogate is a constitutional officer, elected every five years, who qualifies executors and trustees named in wills, and appoints administrators for those persons who die without wills and for legally incompetent persons. “The Surrogate is the custodian of the records of such estates and acts as the clerk of the Superior Court, Law Division, Probate Part, the court that hears cases involving disputed estates or incapacitated proceedings. Further, the Surrogate acts as the clerk of the Family Part of the Court, Chancery Division, which is responsible for adoption matters.”

The word “surrogate” is Latin for “deputy” or “substitute” and the office has its roots in the early church history of England. Because of disputes, which constantly arose over wills and the settlement of estates, as well as over the title to lands when the owner died, it was necessary to find some central place where these documents could be filed and kept as permanent records. It became the voluntary practice to lodge last wills and testaments with the church authorities. The custom was finally incorporated in the law, and as it grew in volume, bishops of dioceses or ordinaries appointed deputies or substitutes (surrogates) to act for them in the receipt of wills, proof of their proper execution, and the keeping of the records. Since the practice was of a civil rather than religious nature, in time it came under the authority of the government and of an official appointed by the Crown.

As New Jersey became settled and the colony’s government was transferred to the Duke of York, and from him to Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret, and from them to a Board of Proprietors, the records, including wills, were held in East Jersey by this Board at their headquarters in Perth Amboy. In 1702, the Board of Proprietors, because of dissentions among the people, surrendered the civil government of the colony back to the English Crown. Lord Cornbury, the first royal governor sent by Queen Anne, was given, as part of his commission and instructions, the authority and title of surrogate general; and the records were then moved to Burlington. The governor’s authority as surrogate was reinforced on March 17, 1713/14 by colonial legislation with the passing of “An Act Confirming Letters of Administration, granted and to be granted, within this Province,” conferred by “Her Sacred Majesty … to her respective Governours … of this her Colony of New-Jersey the Collating [of] Benefices, granting Lisences for marriages, Probates of Wills, and granting Letters of Administration.”

After the American Revolution, New Jersey set up its own government in 1776 and framed its first constitution which provided for a legislative assembly, a council, and a president selected by the legislature. This official became the acting governor of the state, the chancellor and the surrogate-general or ordinary. As new counties were created and the population increased, “An act to ascertain the power and authority of the ordinary and his surrogates” was approved by the General Assembly on December 16, 1784. It called for the ordinary to appoint one surrogate for each county. By an act of 1822, the appointment of surrogates was taken from the ordinary and conferred upon the legislature; and by the constitution of 1844, it was provided that they should be elected by the people of their respective counties, thus becoming constitutional officers.

The act of 1784 also established a new county court called the Orphans’ Court, composed of at least three judges of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas, which was invested with certain powers previously exercised by the surrogate, such as hearing and deciding disputes about the validity of wills and rights of administration, which, when they arose before the surrogate, the surrogate was directed to hand over to that court. The surrogate’s powers were reduced further by an act passed in 1855, wherein the proceedings of a surrogate in proving an inventory, or granting letters of administration or of guardianship, or respecting the probate of wills are subject to appeal to the Orphans’ Court.

By 1906, an earlier system, which had been established in 1804, of paying the surrogate by fees was abolished, and the office was placed on a salary basis. Thereafter, the money collected by the surrogate was turned over to the county government.

“Today, the duties of the surrogate are mostly administrative. These duties provide for the administration of an estate, whether it be the process of admitting a will to probate or granting letters of administration to an appropriate person to carry on the duties of the decedent. Letters of Guardianship are also granted to persons for minor children who are awarded funds through a court as well as guardians for mentally incompetent persons.”

As clerk of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Probate Part, the Surrogate’s Court reviews and files adoptions, declaration of death actions, appointment of guardian for an incompetent person, trusteeships, conservatorships and accountings.

In Monmouth County, the first offices built for the use of the clerk and surrogate were ordered to be constructed in June 1799 and were completed by 1803. This occurred just before an “Act concerning the surrogate’s office in the several counties of this state” was enacted by the General Assembly on December 1, 1804, which called for a fireproof office to be erected for the surrogate’s office in every county. The offices were moved in 1851 when another building was constructed on South Street. In 1869, a second story was added and the building was connected to the courthouse; a steeple was added to match the one on the courthouse. On October 30, 1873, a fire broke out in a nearby building and spread rapidly, and although the county offices were built of brick, the wooden roof went up in flames. Fortunately there was enough time to save the books and papers of both offices, and those papers which were left in the vaults were found to be safe after the fire was out.

The surrogates for Monmouth County who were appointed to the office were:
1785-1793 Thomas Henderson
1794-1796 Joseph Scudder
1797-1803 Caleb Lloyd
1804-1804 William Russell
1804-1813 Richard Throckmorton
1814-1821 Joseph Phillips
1817-1820 Caleb Lloyd
1822-1832 Peter C. Vanderhoef
1833-1847 Henry D. Polhemus

With the revision of New Jersey’s constitution in 1844 which stated that the surrogate would be elected and set the terms at five years, the office holders were:
1848-1858 Arthur V. Conover
1858-1868 John R. Conover
1868-1882 Aaron Rhea Throckmorton (resigned)
1882-1911 David S. Crater (resigned to accept the appointment of secretary of state)
1912-1944 Joseph L. Donahay (died in office)
1944-1954 Dorman McFaddin
1955-1965 Edward Broege
1966-1969 Donald J. Cunningham
1970-1970 Louis R. Aikins
1971-1971 vacant
1972-1976 S. Thomas Gagliano
1977-1981 Andrew W. Smith, Jr.
1982-1986 James William Boyle
1987-1991 Patricia A. Bennett
1992-2006 Marie Muhler
2007-         Rosemarie D. Peters

The greatest number of documents are receipts given to the administrators by creditors as proof that they had been paid by the estate. Also included are inventories, vendue lists (lists of property sold at auction), receipt books, statements, lists of creditors and the amount owed. Some records include appraisals, taxes, and account books from the businesses of the deceased and day books. One or two records include personal letters, interrogatives and answers of petitioner, insolvent debtor affidavits, orders to prosecute bond, wills and contestment, divisions of real estate, deeds, and judgments against creditors.

In addition to the names of the deceased, there are also names of administrators; and in the case of vendue lists, the names of the purchasers, the items purchased and the prices paid. In the case of account and day books, there are names of those who purchased items from the businesses of the deceased along with the items purchased and prices paid.

This collection is open to researchers.
The original records are stored in twelve manuscript boxes and have not been microfilmed.
The Estate Records series is arranged alphabetically by name of the deceased.
Monmouth County Archives
125 Symmes Drive
Manalapan NJ 07726
Tel. (732) 308-3771
These records were transferred to the Archives by County Clerk Jane G. Clayton before 1998.
A finding aid was created by Carol Megill on May 6, 1998; updated May 2016 by George Joynson. An Access database was created October 20, 2014.