Many aspects, though not all, of our legal system were imported from England. In those parts of America owned by the English Crown, courts were created based on English law, including the concept of the chancery court.
Chancery Court in England: Law and Equity
The Court of Chancery was developed in England to ensure equity even in cases where the common law did not provide a remedy. Val Greenwood, writing in Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, states “At common law the terms equity and chancery (which are synonymous) are used to describe one type of court proceeding and the term law is used to describe another.”
“In an action at law one seeks to recover monetary damages for injuries to himself, his property, his pocketbook, or his reputation; while in a suit in equity he seeks to compel someone to do something (specific performance decree) or to stop doing or refrain from doing something (injunction).” Thus, as Greenwood explains, equity courts often addressed such issues as divorces, foreclosures, trusts, and disputes regarding ownership of land or property.
Court Records in the United States Today
In the United States today, the federal and most state courts have combined law and equity into one unit. County courts, with which citizens are apt to be most familiar, generally handle cases of both types. Thus the obvious place to look for legal records both now and in the past is the closest county courthouse.
Chancery , Orphan’s, Probate, and Circuit Courts
However, genealogists need to be aware that courthouse records are not one large set of documents. As legal systems evolved over the years, the area may have supported several types of courts with different names and different functions. For example, separate records would have been kept from a Chancery Court, an Orphan’s Court, a Probate Court, and a Circuit Court.
Courts have been combined at various times, and some areas have had only one or two of these differently named courts. In the absence of a Probate Court, a Chancery Court may provide the same functions. In some places a combined Probate and Chancery Court operate.
What can you find in Chancery Court Records?
Since a Chancery Court may handle a wide variety of cases involving people and their property, records of these courts tend to be very useful in genealogy. One type of documents in a Chancery Court, assuming there was (or is) no separate Probate Court, will be wills and other probate records.
Contained in a packet (the most common form of court document preservation) will be a will, if it existed, statements and accounts from the executor or administrator of the estate, invoices presented for payment after the person died, and distribution of property. A list of inheritors is generally present, and names of wives and children may also be included. Probate documents are a good source for finding married names of adult daughters, and thus determining parentage.
It's also possible that a will was handled in Probate Court, but when heirs and administrators disagreed to the point of filing lawsuits, the case was heard in Chancery Court, and the records of both cases were then combined into a Chancery Court file.
Corporate Matters and Real Estate
When handling disputes about land or property, Chancery Courts created records that are helpful in determining where ancestors owned property, as well as noting neighbors and relatives who may have been involved in the dispute. Family squabbles over the disposition of inherited land, as well as disagreements among people in the community, have resulted in many genealogically useful documents. Companies involved in building railroads, or performing other services, may also have appeared before the Chancery Court. In fact, some present day Chancery Courts may focus primarily on corporate matters, real estate, and contracts.
Some of the most important records, genealogically speaking, involve the Chancery Court’s rulings on guardianship of children and the mentally ill. Adoptions, custody disputes, sanity hearings, and domestic matters of various kinds may all be contained in the court’s records.
Chancery Courts: Providing Equity and Justice
While Chancery Courts still exist in some states today, in others it was combined or replaced with some other type of court. It always pays to find out if such courts existed, though, because their records can help solve a wide range of genealogical problems.
For more information about genealogy and court records, see What are Orphan's Court Records?
Greenwood, Val D. TheResearcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000.
Leary, Helen F. M. North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History. North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996.