Wills are written by people to express how they wish their property and money
to be inherited when they die. Because people usually leave legacies to close
family, they are immensely useful to genealogists wishing to learn about, and
prove, family relationships.
What Wills Are
While wills can sometimes enable us to trace family trees in their own right,
they are most often used to clarify and prove predigrees constructed from
General Registration records, censuses and parish registers. They can also add
colour to family trees, detailing unusual belongings, eccentric desires and
suggesting how members of the family felt about each other.
How Wills Developed
In the Middle Ages, there were very strict rules governing the inheritance of
land and property ('real estate'), which usually went to the eldest son although
in parts of England real estate was divided between each all children, with the
youngest receiving the hearth ('gavelkind', found particularly in Kent), or went
to the youngest son ('borough English'). The wife would customarily receive a
third for life (or half under gavelkind).
Personal estate could be bequeathed, but a third had to go to the widow and at
least a third to the children. To get around the rules, people passed land to
trustees who held the land under the terms specified in a deed or a will, and in
practice allowed it to be used by the person to whom the original holder would
have bequeathed it had he been free to do so.
The Statute of Wills of 1540, followed by the Wills Act of 1837, laid down the
rules under which most wills you will encounter were made. From 1540, men aged
14 or more and women aged 12 or more could write wills, until 1837 when the age
for both sexes was raised to 21, those who were excommunicated, mad, or
prisoners could not write wills and, while spinsters and widows often wrote
wills, married women seldom did until 1882, because until the Married Women's
Property Act of 1882 they could not legally own anything.
Writing A Will
In a will, the writer ('testator', or 'testatrix' if female) nominated executors
to distribute their property after their death. The executors would take the
will to a court to 'prove' it, by swearing that it was authentic and represented
the deceased's last wishes and undertaking to fulfil the instructions expressed.
Wills were usually written by lawyers following their clients' instructions but
sometimes they were dictated by testators, usually on their death beds. These
were called nuncupative wills and, when they were proved, they were often
accompanied by statements from a couple of people who had been present. After
1837, nuncupative wills were only valid if made by members of the armed forces
prior to killing in action.
Original wills are held in public archives, unless they were never proved-if
there was no likelihood of a dispute, families often decided to avoid the cost
of going to probate -in which case they may be in family or solicitors' papers.
Some were taken to church courts but theprocess of probate was never seen
through. Family papers may often,however, contain probate copies, kept by the
executors to enable themto do their jobs properly.
Finding A Will
The wealthier a family was, the more likelihood there is of them having left
wills. However, some very rich people never left wills and, although many poor
people did not either, plenty did. If you are tracing a family of labourers, it
is unlikely you will find wills for them, but you should never assume this,
because some did and you could miss out on a very great deal of interesting and
useful information if you never look.
Equally, you may have traced a family tree perfectly well using other records
and decide you do not need to look for wills. Again, you might just as well not
have bothered starting the exercise at all, as wills often provide for more
colour and interest than most of the other documents genealogists use.
Up to 1898, the value of the estate would be recorded in the probate details.
This was the value of the personal estate (not freehold land, unless it had been
rented out for a fixed terms of years) before deduction of funeral expenses and
debts. After 1898 real estate was included unless it was held in trust. Up to
1881 the value was usually quoted as 'under' a round sum, such as 'under £700',
after which the exact sum was stated.
Letters Of Administration
If someone dies without leaving a will, they are said to be intestate. Close
relatives, often the deceased's husband or wife, or sometimes creditors or close
friends, could, and indeed still can apply for authority to allow them to settle
the estate. The resulting letters of administration provide details of who died
and when, and where they lived, and the person or people (with places of
residence and usually their relationship to the deceased) to whom the power of
administration was granted, and the date of the grant. They are not nearly as
useful as wills, but usually provide a little information that can still be very
helpful in tracing a family tree.
There have always been strict laws as to how intestates' property is to be
distributed. Widows were entitled to a third of their husband's estate, with the
remainder going equally to the children, although under gavelkind in Kent they
received half if there were children and, since1926 this rule has applied to the
whole country. After the spouse, the children inherit, or if any of them are
dead their own offspring inherit their parent's share.
If there is no spouse,
children or other descendants, the estate passes to the deceased's parents, or
if they are deceased to the deceased's siblings or descendants of deceased
siblings. This is followed then by grandparents, and failing them siblings or
descendants of siblings of the parents, or failing that siblings or descendants
of the siblings of the grandparents (and so on), always in equal shares.
Wills From 1858 Onwards
From 12 January 1858, all wills were proved and administrations granted by local
probate offices and the records collated by the PrincipalProbate Registry(PPR),
now termed the Principal Registry of the Family Division. Wills and
administrations were indexed in separate annual, alphabetical volumes up to
1870, after which both were indexed together in the same annual alphabetical
volumes. The volumes are easy to search, providing sufficient detail in almost
all cases to determine whether you have found the right person.
The annual indexes state:
Wills Before 1858
- Name and residence of deceased
- Date of death
- Where the will was proved or letters of administration granted.
- Value of deceased's estate
- Occupations of deceased and executors or administrators are often
- Residence of executors or administrators and, between 1858 and 1892,
their relationship (if any) to the deceased.
Before 1858, wills were proved by church courts, also called ecclesiastical
courts, and unfortunately, even if you know where your ancestor lived it is not
always obvious which church would have proved their will.
England and Wales, and all English and Welsh subjects dying abroad, not least
soldiers and sailors, fell under the jurisdiction if the Archbishop of
Canterbury. Anyone who wished could take a will to the Archbishop'scourt, the
Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC), which (somewhat confusingly) was at
Doctor's Commons near St Paul's Cathedral, London. This was often the option of
the wealthy, for whom the PCC had a certaincaché
During the Cromwellian Commonwealth (1653-60) it was renamed the Court of
Probate of Wills and Granting of Administrations and was the only place where
these activities could take place.
The Archbishop's own archbishopric itself only extended as far north of the
River Trent, beyond which probate jurisdiction fell to the Archbishop of York.
If someone had property worth more than £5 in both archbishoprics, their will
had to be proved at the PCC. Because government stock held at the Bank of
England was deemed to be property in London, Bank of England clients from all
over the country had to have their wills proved at the PCC, and after 1812 the
Bank of England did not recognise any wills not proved there. However, if the
person's property was only within Cheshire, Cumberland, Durham, Northumberland,
Westmoreland and Yorkshire, it could be proved at the Prerogative Court of the
Archbishop of York (PCY) or, before 1577, at his Exchequer Court.
Remember that wills are arranged by date of probate, not date of death, so if
your ancestor died in 1720 but their will was not proved until 1740, then that
is the year in which the will appears in the index. Generally, the broad periods
of time covered by the indexes make them easy to search and it is usually
straightforward to find both the person you want and also to note others of the
same name who could be relatives.
It is not uncommon to search for an ancestor's
will and to end up finding wills for their parents and grandparents in the same
Indexes seldom take variant spellings into account, and sometimes indexers may
have mistranscribed a testator's name, so you must be as alert to these
problems, as when conducting any other searches.
If you are lucky, you will find wills and associated documentation relating to
your direct ancestors. You can then enjoy obtaining photocopies or even
photographs of the records, and seeing how much they will tell you about your
ancestors' lives. Do not forget, however, that much of the wording itself was
usually imposed on the testator by lawyers and clerks. When the will of your
farmer ancestor states. I devise and bequeath unto my eldest son Thomas my black
coat', he probably said something much more like 'and I want Tommy to have this
'ere coat'. Equally, you may encounter much legal jargon, which will have little
bearing on your ancestors' true lives and can often be safely ignored.
Wills are excellent tools for searching for ancestors. Your earliest known
forebear might-and probably shall-be mentioned in a will written by someone else
of the same surname, such as a grandfather, uncle, brother, nephew or cousin.
Therefore an ancestor who died in 1760 could be mentioned in a will written
before 1760 but not proved until years after, so keep on searching. Equally, a
will mentioning one of your ancestor's children as a cousin can point the way
back to a line of relatives and thus a common parish of origin.
Think too about your ancestors' other relatives. You are as likely to be left
bequests by your mother's family as your father's. If you have found a marriage
which you suspect is that of your ancestor's parents, look for wills for people
with the wife's maiden name and you may come across your ancestor's maternal
grandfather or uncle. If your ancestor came from a small village and you are
completely stuck, look for wills of anyone else living in the same place, and
before long you will probably find your ancestor mentioned as a relation, neighbour, witness or executor: this might provide the clue you need.
Searching wills. The technique when searching wills in such a speculative way is
to make very brief genealogical abstracts, recording only the names,
relationships and places that are mentioned. In the foregoing example, all you
need note is 'son Thomas'-the fact that he was due to inherit a coat is, at this
stage, irrelevant. Should the will subsequently turn out to fit into your family
tree, you can always make a more detailed abstract of it later.
Some counties are compiling will beneficiary indexes. Essex RecordOffice has one
covering all names appearing in wills written by people in the county of Essex
(except those proved in the PCC) 1675-1858. Such indexes can help you accomplish
the searches suggested above in a very short time.
Destruction of wills for some areas during Second World War bombing. Those for
Somerset, Devon and Cornwall from before 1858, for example, were almost entirely
destroyed in the bombing of Exeter in 1942. In such cases, surviving abstracts
and copies that had already been made of wills have been collected together and
information on a manuscript of published sources for these can be obtained from
the relevant record offices. Copies of all wills sent to the Estate Duty Office
from 1796 have been returned to these three county record offices.
Paperwork Attached To Wills
Wills and letters of administration could generate much other paperwork. In some
dioceses (Chester, for example), this tended to be filed with the wills and
administrations while in others it was filed separately and so much harder to
Wills Outside England And Wales
Until 1868, the inheritance of land was rigidly fixed, going automatically to
the eldest surviving son (or his heir), or if there were no song lo the eldest
surviving daughter, so technically there were no wills (which bequeath land),
but only testaments, whereby people could bequeath their movable goods to
whomever they liked. The equivalent of a letter of administration, appointing an
administrator to distribute the goods of someone who had died intestate, was
known as a testament dative.
Probate matters were dealt with in church courts until 1560 when, unlike England
and Wales, probate was handed over to secular commissary courts or commissariots
under the overall jurisdiction of the Principal Commissariot of Edinburgh, which
also dealt with Scots who had goods in Scotland but who had died elsewhere.
In Scotland, there are also services to heirs (also called retours).
Mostheritable land simply passed from father to eldest son, but in cases where
it did not (e.g. grandchildren inheriting from grandparents because their
parents were dead, nephews inheriting from childless uncles and so on), it was
common to record the right with a retour. Retours were also used to appoint
'tutors' or guardians for fatherless children ('pupils'). Those pre-1700 are in
Latin and very awkward to use.
Irish probate worked in the same way as in England and Wales, with wills being
proved in the consistory courts of the Church of Ireland bishops (there were no
archdeaconry courts and very few peculiar courts), under the overall
jurisdiction of the prerogative Court of Armagh, the equivalent of the PCC. In
1858, a Principal Probate Registry was established in Dublin. As previously
stated the great disaster to Irish genealogy was the destruction of records
during the IRA's bombing of the Four Courts in 1922.
The indexes to wills and administrations for all the courts before 1858 survive
and at least give the names and addresses of testators, and the year of probate,
so even if you cannot read the will you shall still know that someone of a
certain name and residence died in or about a certain year. In fact, many wills
had been abstracted by solicitors, family archivists and genealogists on an ad
hoc basis and, after the disaster, about 20,000 of these were collected together
at the NA, where they are indexed.
The Channel Islands
In Jersey, wills up to 1949 were proved by the EcclesiasticalCourt of the Dean
Guernsey wills are proved by the Ecclesiastical Court of the Bailiwick of
Guernsey, St Peter Port.
Isle Of Man
Wills and administrations were proved in or granted through either the
Consistory Court of Sodor and Man or archdeaconry Court of the Isle of Man.
Unlike the rest of Britain, the church did not relinquish control over wills
until1884, when probate was transferred to the Manx High Court of Justice.
- Navin Kumar Jaggi
- Gurmeet Singh Jaggi