What is a chancery cause?
According to Black’s Law Dictionary, a chancery cause is a case of equity where “Justice is administered according to fairness as contrasted with the strictly formulated rules of common law.” In layman’s terms, a chancery case was one that could not be readily decided by existing written laws. A judge, not a jury, determines the outcome of the case. These types of court documents are useful when researching genealogical information and land or estate divisions and may contain correspondence, lists of heirs, or vital statistics, among other items. Cases in chancery often address estate and business disputes, debt, the resolution of land disputes, and divorce.
A chancery case began with the bill of complaint, explaining the background of the action, followed by an answer from the parties being sued. Court appointed commissioners decided a fair and equitable settlement of the case based on the evidence presented and reported their findings to the court. The court’s decision or final decree was the last step in the proceedings of a chancery case. Cases in chancery could be heard in any court.
The earliest extant Virginia court records are those of the county courts. The end of primogeniture in Virginia in 1786 and the creation of general inheritance laws caused an increase in chancery cases; as a result, additional courts were created in which cases could be heard, including District Courts (1789–1808), Superior Courts of Chancery (1802–1831), Circuit Superior Courts of Law and Chancery (1831–1851), and Circuit Courts (1852–present).
Prior to 1832, chancery cases are generally found in the county court and the Superior Court of Chancery. After its formation in 1831, the Superior Court of Law and Chancery heard the majority of the chancery cases, although some were still heard in the county court. With the creation of the Circuit Court in 1852, chancery cases were heard in that court and in the county court up to 1870. After 1870, chancery cases were heard exclusively in the circuit court. For information, consult Thomas J. Headlee, The Virginia State Court System (1969).
What type of information can I find in the Chancery Records Index?
1. The locality where the case was recorded.
2. An index number based on the 4-digit year in which the case was ended (or the latest known year) and a sequentially increasing 3-digit number assigned by the processor as cases are found. For example, an index number of 1932-012 indicates the case ended in 1932 and was the 12th case from that year indexed by the processor.
3. The names of the primary plaintiff(s) and defendant(s).
4. Surnames of others involved in a case, including secondary plaintiffs and defendants, deponents, family members, and others, if applicable.
5. Format of the case:
- Original, housed at the Library of Virginia or circuit court clerk's office
- If available on microfilm, Library of Virginia microfilm reel number, locality reel number and image number
- Scanned images linked to the Chancery Records Index
6. Wills, if applicable.
7. Original Local Case Number, if applicable. This is the original drawer or case number previously assigned to the record by the locality.
8. Plats, if applicable.
The Chancery Records Index allows researchers to locate cases regardless of court, and regardless of the original arrangement (chronological or numerical by file number).
How do I cite a chancery cause?
To assure that a referenced case can be located again, please cite as follows:
[Locality Name] (Va.) Chancery Causes, [date range]. [Cite style of suit and chancery index no.]. Local Government Records Collection, [Locality] Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.
For example: Westmoreland County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1753-1911. Admr. of William Anderson v. John Anderson, 1842-009. Local Government Records Collection, Westmoreland Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.
It is possible as more papers are processed for any given locality that index numbers, or even styles of suit, may change.
Why is the year of the case 1111?
Index numbers that begin with 1111 denote a case for which a year could not be determined (Example: 1111-001, 1111-002, etc.).
Why can't I find my locality in the Chancery Records Index?
The chancery indexing project is an ongoing effort to flat-file, index, and reformat the pre-1913 records of Virginia circuit courts. The list of localities included in the Chancery Records Index is continually being updated as new projects are completed.
Please see the “What’s Available” web page on the Chancery Records Index site for information on availability.
Can I still access chancery causes that are not in the Chancery Records Index?
Yes. The traditional method of finding chancery cases is through the county or city order or minute books. There is usually an index by plaintiff in the front (but sometimes in the back) of each volume. For some counties, there are cumulative indices to order books. There are no subject indices for chancery causes.
Using order books, the researcher follows the case until the court issued its final decree. With this ended date, the researcher may then search the loose papers for the case, if they survive.
What are loose papers?
Chancery cases were originally found in unbound county or city loose papers (instead of bound records, such as will or deed books). More specifically, loose papers that contain chancery cases are found in the following types of records: chancery papers, causes ended, determined papers, dead papers, and judgments. The loose papers may be arranged chronologically or alphabetically. At a later date, particularly with chancery cases heard in the Superior Court of Law and Chancery or the Circuit Court, cases are indexed and arranged by file number.
How can I obtain copies from chancery causes?
There are several ways to access the chancery causes depending on their format.
You may visit the Library of Virginia in person and use the chancery causes in the Archives Research Room. Please see the Rules for Using the Archives and Map Research Rooms
If the chancery causes have been reformatted on microfilm, you may visit the West Reading Room at Library of Virginia in person and make copies at the self-service printers. If it is more convenient, you may also view a locality's microfilm in the circuit court clerk's office for that locality. It is advisable to call the clerk’s office in advance of any visit. Finally, microfilmed chancery causes are also available through the Library of Virginia’s Interlibrary Loan program. You may contact your local library for information on how to request up to five reels of microfilm at a time.
If the chancery causes have been reformatted through digital scanning, you may use your web browser to access those images.
NETSCAPE USERS: Version 6.1 or higher is required to search this database. INTERNET EXPLORER USERS: Version 5.5 or higher is required to search this database. AOL USERS: Due to AOL protocols, the Chancery Records Index does not properly function using AOL software. Use NETSCAPE or INTERNET EXPLORER as your web browser. In order to view the images on the Chancery Records Index site you must have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on your computer. The Adobe Acrobat Reader can be downloaded, at no charge, from Adobe's Download Site.
In order to preserve fragile manuscript material, the original chancery cause will not be served if a reformatted copy is available for research.
Can I request copies through the mail for original chancery causes?
Yes. Please see the "Ordering Materials" page for more information on requesting copies.
What makes up a chancery cause?
The three fundamental pieces of a chancery cause are:
Bill, Bill of Complaint, or Bill of Injunction- This first step in instituting a chancery cause outlines the complaint of the plaintiff (also referred to as the complainant or the orator/oratrix) against the defendant.
Answer- The defendant’s response to the complaint in the bill, which may deny all of the allegations, take exceptions to some, or otherwise explain the actions of the defendant. The defendant can choose not to file an answer, in which case the Bill is "taken for confessed."
Final Decree- The judge’s final decision on the case.
Other items that may be contained in a chancery cause are:
Subpoena- An order for an individual to appear at a certain time and place to give testimony.
Deposition- The testimony of a subpoenaed witness given upon questioning, but not in open court.
Affidavit- A voluntary statement of facts given by a subpoenaed witness without questioning.
Commissioner’s Report- The findings and recommendations of the commissioners, which can be filed before or after the final decree.
Docket- Lists the plaintiff’s and defendant’s names (style of suit) and the dates of court actions, including the filing of the bill, answer, and final decree. The docket is often used as a wrapper for the other documents in the case. In some cases, the docket is written on the back of the bill and then that document is wrapped around the others.
Plat- A map of a specific area showing the locations and boundaries of individual parcels of land.
Decrees other than the Final Decree- Decrees that direct further proceedings may be issued at various points throughout the case.
Wills, deeds, notices, receipts, exhibits, and store accounts are a few of the other types of records that may be found in a chancery cause.
What do those abbreviations mean?
&C - see ETC
ADMR- administrator; a person appointed by the court to manage or take care of the assets or liabilities of a deceased person.
ADMS- administrators; plural of administrator.
ADMX- administratrix; feminine of administrator.
ASGN- assignee; a person to whom a transfer of all or part of another's property, interests or rights is made.
COMR- commissioner; an officer who is charged with the administration of the laws relating to some particular subject matter; appointed to hear facts and report to court.
COMT- committee; a person, or board of persons, to whom the handling of an estate has been committed, especially one appointed to handle the estate of someone judged insane.
CRED- creditors; a person to whom a debt is owed by another person who is the "debtor."
CUR- curator; a temporary guardian appointed to take care of the estate of a minor above a certain age, a lunatic, a spendthrift, or other person not regarded as competent to administer it for himself.
DEV- devisee; a person to whom lands or other real property are given in a will.
DIST- distributee; an heir; a person entitled to share in the distribution of an estate.
ETC- et cetera; and others.
EXR- executor; a person named in a will to settle an estate.
EXRS- executors; plural of executor.
EXX- executrix; feminine of executor.
GDN- guardian; one who legally has responsibility for the care, management and estate of a minor child.
LEGT- legatee; usually, a person to whom personal property is given in a will.
RECV- receiver; a neutral person appointed by the court to receive and preserve the property or fund in litigation, and receive its rents, issues and profits, and apply or dispose of them at the direction of the court.
REP- representative; one who represents others or another in a special capacity.
SHFF- sheriff; elected constitutional officer responsible for law enforcement.
SURVPARTNER- surviving partner; the living one of two or more persons in a business relationship after the death of the other or others.
TRST- trustee; one in whom an estate, interest or power is vested, under an express or implied agreement to administer or exercise it for the benefit or use of another.
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