Shirley Hornbeck's This and That Genealogy Tips on Death Records

Together with birth and marriage records, death records make up the category known as "vital records". Genealogists should keep in mind that many types of records should be consulted when researching information about an individual's death, including cemetery, census, church, military, probate, Railroad Retirement Board, and Social Security.

In the United States prior to 1850, few states had laws requiring that deaths be registered, and the year in which such laws were enacted varied from state to state. The earliest records generally record only the name of the deceased, the date of death, and the place of death.

Records from the 19th century tend to include more information, such as the cause of death, the age of the deceased, the date and place of birth, the name of the parents, the occupation of the deceased, the name of the spouse, the name of the person who provided the information and that person's relationship to the deceased. Race and slave-status may be included as well.

Death records from the 20th century may be even more elaborate than those of the 19th century. They may include sex, marital status, Social Security number, residence, place of burial, and birthplace of parents.

One valuable use of death records is to provide a date and location that can be used to locate an obituary, which may then provide a wealth of information about the deceased. Another valuable use of death records is to provide cause of death, critical information when you are attempting to document genetic predispositions to illnesses in a family.

Prior to the enactment of the Succession Law Reform Act in 1978, a surviving husband was entitled to elect to take curtesy, that is, a life estate in his deceased wife's real property not disposed of by deed or will, in lieu of his statutory right to a preferential and distributive share. [Curtesy] was abolished by the Act.

Similarly, a surviving wife was entitled, as her primary right, to take dower, that is, a life estate in one-third of the real property of which her husband died solely seized ["entitled to"] or to which he was beneficially entitled [like in a trust]. She could, however, elect to give up dower and take her statutory rights of inheritance instead. The life estate was abolished by the Family Law Reform Act. However, the old law remains important for titles to land, for...the Act only abolished the right prospectively."

Dower and curtesy still exist in some provinces and states.

Wives could "bar their dower" on any or all of their husband's property by signing a contract which should have been registered prior to any transaction conveying the land (sometimes it is contained as a term of the deed itself). It is important to remember that dower and curtesy only give life estates, i.e. the right dies with the surviving spouse and can't be passed on. The big difference between dower and curtesy is that dower is the wife's primary right in the estate of the husband, who can elect to take the preferential and distributive share [preferential share is an amount set by law which the spouse gets before all other claims; distributive share is split with the children], but the preferential and distributive share was the primary right of the husband who can elect to take curtesy instead. I suppose that is why you don't see husbands "barring their curtesy" as a matter of course.

In Colonial days gifts (rings, scarves, gloves, etc.) were given to those invited to the funeral as a way of paying tribute to the dead. The custom came from England and was so strongly ingrained that even pauper funerals required a minimum of gifts. Prominent persons' funerals could require the distribution in excess of, for example 2,000 pairs of gloves. The cost of the gifts was deducted from the estate of the deceased, which eventually led to laws prohibiting the custom, which frequently had left a widow and her children virtually paupers.

refers to a married woman's 1/3 interest in her husband's estate, at his death. This was to protect her from an unscrupulous husband leaving her out of his will, or in the case of no will, she had protection. When a married man sold property, or took a mortgage, the wife had to sign for herself relinquishing her 1/3 interest to the buyer or the mortgagee otherwise she still had a 1/3 interest in someone else's property. The word is "Dower" rather than dowager; several of the original colony states continued this practice of dower rights for many years.

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