People that had assets in the form of money or land were people that went through Probate. Our relatives were concerned with the distribution of their worldly goods at the time of death. Locating Probate documents is a important item to locate when doing research on our families.
Writing a will was a very common document that was done by our relatives. These documents or lack of them can provide critical clues in our genealogical research. In cases prior to the 1860's in most place this might provide the only approximate date of death for our relatives. If your relative owned his own land they normally took steps to indicate how they wanted it distributed at the time of their death. Make sure you know who all the names are in the text of the will.
Another important issue as well is to understand if anyone has been left out. Then try to locate clues of why they were left out. An example of this would be a spouse. The further you go back the less likely it is that a women would have a will. A strong identifier in the man's will is if he mentions the wife. If she is not mentioned why? Was the names the one you expected to find in the will?
Many ancestors died at an early age without a will. If there were minor children (Under 18) in the family you need to check for guardianship. This was normally conducted in most areas going way back into the 1600's. This was only done when the man died first. Again the beliefs of the time played an important factor in this document and the relationship to the women. The courts were very concerned that the children were going to be taken care of after the death of the father.
As in all things in genealogy understanding the meaning and purpose of documents is critical. Understanding the money situation if families helps us better understand their relationships. The lack of money also explains the minimal paper trail and even how they were buried. It is critical to understand what was going on so that you can identify new avenues to continue your research.