Wills James Young Farmer Chippenham 1770 proved in the Consistory Court of Sarum (Wiltshire)

Guides

How to use Probate records

A will is a document which sets out a person’s wishes about the disposal of his or her property. The legal process of proving a will and administering and distributing the estate in accordance with those wishes is known as probate.

Probate documents can be remarkably helpful to family historians and it would be a mistake to assume that only wealthy people made a will. If you are lucky, wills can be found from the fourteenth century up to the present day and no matter what the date, if they do exist, they can provide a tremendous amount of information. 

Probate records are personal and these documents might provide one of the few instances when you will “hear” the actual wishes and words of your ancestor.

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What can be found on a will?

 

• Name, address and occupation of the testator

• Date the will was made and signed

• Indication of the health of the testator when the will was made

• Details of the family – i.e. married daughters, sons’ wives, grandchildren, in-laws. Elder children may have been provided for earlier and so might not be named

• Details of property leased and owned

• Date the will was proved and sometimes the date of death. Although the testator has died by this date, probate might not be granted for some considerable time after the death, sometimes many years later.

Terminology and procedures

 

The legal language used in probate documents can be formulaic and difficult to understand.

A will is a document that deals with a TESTATOR’S wishes concerning the disposal of property after death. The testator is the person who made the will.

The WILL deals with the person’s real property (land and buildings) and a TESTAMENT provides for the personal property (goods and chattels). In England and Wales, the Will and Testament are usually contained in the same document and the terms gradually came to mean the same.

An EXECUTOR (male) or EXECUTRIX (female) is appointed by the testator to prove the will and satisfy a court that it is a valid. Typically there would be one, two or three named executors.

The court GRANTS probate that permits the executor to carry out the testator’s wishes.  This decision is recorded in the probate ACT BOOK.

REGISTERED COPIES
of wills may also be copied into the records at the time probate is granted, although sometimes the original will is retained by the court.

Should a testator change his mind after the will has been drawn up, amendments or additions might be made in the form of a CODICIL which is attached to the end of the will rather than the whole document being re-written.

In the case of INTESTACY, where no will has been made, a relative or creditor can apply for letters of ADMINISTRATION or an ADMON and so will be known as the ADMINISTRATOR or ADMINISTRATRIX.  An administration might also be granted if the executor of the will predeceases the testator or renounces (refuses to act in such a capacity). Not all wills were probated and some might take a long while to come to court.

There may be documents amongst family papers that were never presented before a court. Early wills might have accompanying documents such as INVENTORIES, listing in detail the value of the testator’s property room by room or ACCOUNTS rendered by executors.

The court might also provide for the education/TUITION of children or guardianship/ CURATION of orphans. Where no legal will was drawn up, the last death-bed wishes of the deceased could (before 1837) be recorded as a NUNCUPATIVE or spoken will noted by a witness, friend or relative in attendance at the scene of death. Children, lunatics and criminals were prevented from leaving wills and, before the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act, married women required the permission of their husbands to make a will.

Finding wills and admons

 

Registered English and Welsh wills and administrations are public records and the original records are broadly speaking to be found in one of two places:

 

  1. The Principal Registry of the Family Division (PPR), which since 2014 only makes wills available through online ordering and no longer maintains a public search room. (See the Find a Will website below).
  2. The National Archives (TNA), Kew, Richmond, Surrey. TW9 4DU (before 1858): www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

 

Local church court records in local record or diocesan offices (before 1858). Addresses and websites can be found via TNA’s Discovery website: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archives-home/

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