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Help! I Can't Find My Ancestor's Death Date

Help! I Can't Find My Ancestor's Death Date

One of the most common genealogy questions I am asked involves how to find an ancestor's date of death. Typically, genealogy researchers first think of searching for a death certificate.

What if your ancestor pre-dates the beginning use of a formal death certificate?  Then what?  What other options as a researcher do you have to find your ancestor's date of death?

Fortunately, genealogy researchers do have options for determining a date of death or a death year. 

Resources To Use When Searching For An Ancestor's Date of Death

Death Certificates

Death certificates are in reality a "new" record. Before beginning a search for a death certificate, check with the vital records office for the state or country where you are researching to determine when death certificates began being issued.  If your ancestor's death preceded these records, do not spend time looking for a record that did not exist. Move on to one of the other options below.



Thomas Maddox (1870-1928) gravestone
Photo courtesty of Lisa Lisson

Your ancestor's gravestone will usually have the birth and death dates. The full date or just the year may be listed. Keep in mind, while these dates are generally correct, errors in the engraving did occur. If the date does not match up with other information you have, continue your research for more evidence of the death date.

Will & Probate Records

Probate-sample-illinoisIllinois Probate Records (Source: Ancestry.com)

Your ancestor's will does not (usually) provide his/her actual date of death, but will provide valuable information in narrowing down a death date. For the date your ancestor signed the will, you know he/she was still living. For instance, if your ancestor signed his/her will on 11 Mar 1871, then he/she was alive on that date. 

Note the date the will was entered into probate.  For our example, we see the will was entered into the court for probate 18 May 1871. This ancestor's death occurred between 11 Mar 1871 and 18 May 1871. 

Mortality Schedules

Example of an  1870 U.S. Mortality Schedule (Source: Ancestry.com)

For U. S. researchers, the mortality schedules of the 1850-1880 census records provide information on individuals who died in the preceding 12 months of the census date. While a specific date will not be specified usually, an ancestor's appearance on a mortality schedule will narrow down a death date.


Obituaries can be found in local newspapers.  If your ancestor was a prominent citizen or politician, regional and state newspapers may also print an obituary or longer article. 

Do not neglect to check religious publications for an obituary as well.

Church Records

Church records offer a variety of genealogical information including information the death of congregants.  Check to see if your ancestor's church recorded a death or burial date.  Church histories, church rolls and newsletters may hold clues to an individual's death date. 

City Directories

See the recent Finding Genealogical Clues in City Directories post for using a city directory to narrow down an ancestor's death date.

Pension Records

1812-pension-david-hainesWar of 1812 Widow's Pension Application for widow of David Haines (Source: Fold3.com)

Pension records are another potential source to find your ancestor's death date. If your ancestor received a pension for military service, a notation is usually made when he died. Additionally, if his widow applied for a widow's pension, she had to prove their marriage and also, that her spouse was indeed deceased.

Family Records

While last in the list, a family's own personal records should not be discounted. In fact, these should be some of the first records you seek out as a researcher. Family records include the Family Bible, funeral cards tucked into a favorite book or box of mementos, and funeral guest books. Check for obituaries and newspaper articles tucked away.  

Look at the family photo album and check the back of photographs for any notations of a death date (or birth and marriage dates!).

Tip: Reach out to more distant relatives and researchers of collateral ancestors. Information on your line in the family may well be in their closet!

If you are unsure where to find an ancestor's death date, explore one of the options mentioned above.  In addition to determining your ancestor's death date, learn about Four Steps to Analyzing your Ancestor's Gravesite.

Learn more about cemeteries and cemetery records from these webinar in the Legacy library.


Lisa Lisson is the writer, educator and genealogy researcher behind Are You My Cousin? and believes researching your genealogy does not have to be overwhelming. All you need is a solid plan, a genealogy toolbox and the knowledge to use those tools. Lisa can be found online at LisaLisson.com , Facebook and Pinterest




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I found the date and cause of death of my g.g.g.g. grandfather on a military document which listed dates of entry, enlistment terms, and discharges. He had reported sick, and then died, in September of 1813, in New York, during the War of 1812. Thus he was not in his home state of Vermont, nor do we know where he was buried. Sometimes you just have to keep looking!

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