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Skifte means Probate – Danish Genealogy Words

Lene Dræby Kottal, Certified Genealogist®
Skifte means Probate – Danish Genealogy Words

Google Translate says that the Danish word skifte means switch, shift, or alternate, and it does, but to a genealogist, it has another meaning: Probate. During probate proceedings, property changes hands, so the word skifte makes sense.

Most Danes did not make a will, and therefore the estate of a deceased person was probated. The process of probating is expressed in various ways of which these two are the most common:

  • at holde skifteforretning (to carry out probate business)
  • at foretage skifte og deling (to perform probate and division)

The decision about the distribution of the estate was often made in probate court, which is called skifteretten in Danish (singular: skifteret).

Skifteforvalter - Probate Manager

The authority managing the probate was called en skifteforvalter (a probate manager), and he was most often the local bailiff. Sometimes the probate manager was unable to probate within the deadline because he had business elsewhere. Then an official would probate on his behalf. The official is called en fuldmægtig, which is a clerk who has been given authority to act on behalf of someone, in this case, on behalf of the probate manager.

The beginning of a probate record usually identifies the probate manager and the clerk if a clerk was involved. The beginning of the probate record shown below reads and translates as follows:

"Anno 1818 den 21de Septembr indfandt Skifteforvalteren Hr Bye or Herredsfoged Bagger sig ved Fuldmægtig Knud Schÿtte af Schanderborg..."

Year 1818 on 21st September the probate manager Mr. town and district bailiff Bagger appeared by clerk Knud Schÿtte of Schanderborg...

A snippet of the beginning of a Danish probate record from 1818.

Images of Danish Probate Records

The Danish National Archives has imaged many probate records (skiftearkivalier). The images are available in the collection called "Skifter, hele landet" (probates the entire country): https://www.sa.dk/ao-soegesider/en/geo/geo-collection/18.

FamilySearch also provides many images of Danish probate records. Most of them must be found under the jurisdiction in the catalog. For probates handled by manors, start with the collection record for Denmark estate records 1436-1964: https://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/2015318.

Indexes of Danish Probate Records

One incomplete but growing index of probates handled by manors is provided by the Danish genealogical society Danske Slægtsforskere Odense. Although it is provided by the organization in Odense, it is not limited to records from Odense, and they are close to reaching the 400K mark for indexed probates. You can search the index at https://www.faesterogskifter.dk.

Most probate records are not indexed in a database, but for many of them there are handwritten alphabetical name indexes (navneregister), and if so, the handwritten index is typically imaged. Before you sigh because you must turn pages, bear in mind that Denmark is a tiny country. An index for one book of probates typically has less than five pages for each letter of the alphabet, so reading it is not a huge page-turning task. Page-turning is not my preferred task, but the reward of finding a probate record for a relative is worth it.

Read the Probate Record Carefully to Extract All Research Clues

The image at the top of the post is a photo of a small oil lamp, which we found among my father's belongings. The inscription reads Svejbæk Færgegaard, which is a clue that someone in his family had been to Svejbæk in Jutland or possibly lived there. Some probate managers were meticulous and wrote such inscriptions in the inventory, so clues for our research can be everywhere.