Probate records are extremely interesting, because they go beyond names and dates and really allow one a look into the lives of our ancestors. Depending on the specific type of probate record, you can get all kinds of information about relatives, finances, and property.
Personally, my favorite aspect of an ancestor's probate record is the inventory of what he or she owned.
We'll use as an example the estate of my 6th great-grandfather Richard Palmer of Bradford, Massachusetts, whose probate file is dated 15 January 1725. His estate included eleven acres of land, a pair of oxen, a mare, a colt, two cows, three yearlings, twenty sheep, and two swine. Some other items he owned were "pewter, brass, and iron things", "a pair of old books", and three beds--a "best" one, and two "old" ones.
Including his house and barn, Richard Palmer's estate totaled "one hundred fifty pounds two and nine pence."
It's hard for me to tell what this would be equivalent to in 2015 American currency, but it doesn't sound too shabby. Any readers more knowledgable than I am in New England colonial currency are invited to give an estimate in a comment or email me.
Richard named his widow Martha (nee Downer) as his executor; a document shows that she was illiterate, since she made her mark with an x instead of writing her name; female literacy was far from common in 18th century New England.
While vital records serve as the crucial skeletons of our ancestors, probate files provide much of the flesh that makes them real and personal, rather than just names in a chart. Don't neglect these wonderful resources!
Richard PALMER (1675-1714/15) m. Martha DOWNER
Samuel PALMER (b. 1713) m. Ann EVANS
Joshua PALMER I (1761-1851) m. Sarah SWETT
Joshua PALMER II (1815-1864) m. Arvilla BAILEY
George Bailey PALMER (1850-1926) m. Mary Olivia PURINTON
Frank Bailey PALMER (1888-1958) m. Bessie Maud WINSLOW
Dorothy Elizabeth PALMER (1918-1984) m. Henry Richard HOWES
S. HOWES (1937-1999) m. my father