If you own land, or are contemplating buying or selling land in Alabama, you need a basic understanding of Alabama’s probate courts. The legal system and process varies a great deal from state to state. Alabama’s court system includes Probate Courts, which are considered courts of limited jurisdiction along with municipal courts, small claims courts, juvenile courts, and district courts. Each of Alabama’s 67 counties has a probate court, which according to the Alabama Bar Association, has jurisdiction over matters dealing with wills, estates, real property, mental illness, and adoption. Given the matters under their jurisdiction, the probate courts are very important to land owners and their ability to sell and prove clear title to property.
The word “Probate” comes from the Latin word, “probare” which means “to prove“. In the late 1700’s this term came to specifically mean “to prove a will“. The purpose of proving a will is to show rightful ownership of property and allow for the appropriate disposition of it. The basic process of “probating a will” or proving the will, is opening probate, administering probate, and then closing probate. You likely need the help of an attorney familiar with estate law to guide you through the process. Every courthouse in the state has a probate office where the legal records such as deeds, birth and death certificates, marriage certificates, mortgages, liens, mineral and timber leases, easements of record, and property judgments are kept and made available to the public. Many counties now have at least a portion of their public records digitized and indexed on a computer. Some of the county courthouses around the state have suffered devestating fires through the years, and important documents were lost. For some land records from 1800 to 1950, the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office has a searchable tool to help you locate older items. Alabama became a state in 1819, and many probate offices will have documents dating back to the original patent of the land from the state to the first owner. Some of the earlier property records are also maintained by the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
My hope is that this article gives you a little better understanding of Alabama’s probate court system, and how it can be helpful to you as a landowner. Probate judges are elected officials that serve 6 year terms. They provide a valuable service to the people of your county, so electing the right judge is very important to the conduct of real estate business in your county.
Written by: Jonathan Goode is an Accredited Land Consultant (ALC) and licensed land broker in Alabama and Mississippi. He co-hosts the weekly radio program, The Land Show, that covers many of these topics for people interested in buying or selling land in Alabama.