How to find a will

Wills and testaments pre 1858

This section explains how to find a will when looking for a Will dated pre 1858. 

Wills dated before 1858 are harder to locate because they had to be proved in courts administered by the church. They were called ecclesiastical courts and many such courts existed across the country.

The location of any property your ancestor might have held determined the court to which the application for probate was made, but the deceased could have held land in more than one place.

Wills can open up new avenues to explore and can also help to prove family connections.  From 1540, when the Statute of Wills was introduced, males of 14 years and over and females of 12 years and over could make a will. 

When thinking about how to find a will please remember that the age in which men and women could write a will was raised to 21 in the Wills Act of 1837. Prisoners, traitors, slaves, heretics and those declared mad were unable to make a valid will.

You may find not many married women made a will as she needed her husband's consent. Any property the woman held at the time of her marriage was transferred to her husband's estate, along with any that she acquired whilst married. Unless her husband had agreed, women had no property to leave, and this remained law until the Married Women's Property Act of 1882.

Although some poorer people sometimes made a will, you are more likely to find the deceased left a will if the family was wealthy.

Archdeacons' Courts

The archdeacons’ court had jurisdiction over a large number of parishes and these normally covered the majority of a county. An application should be made to this court if the deceased’s property and/or land lay within one archdeaconry.

Superior Courts

If the deceased’s property was valued at £5 or more and they had property of this value in more than one archdeaconry then the application for probate should be made to this court. This court was that of a bishop or archbishop. The application could be made to the bishop’s consistory court if the property was in one diocese.

Prerogative Court of Canterbury

The Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) was the most important court dealing with individuals who had property in different dioceses, but in the same archbishop’s province. The index is available at the National Archives and is available from 1384-1858. When ordering a will from this source the price per will is currently £3.50.

How to find a will - Courts of York

Research should be carried out in the courts of the Archbishop of York. The jurisdictions of the foregoing judicatures varied, so to find a possible will it is advisable to peruse the records from the Consistory Court of York, the Prerogative Court of York and the Exchequer Court.

Probate Records for the York province are held at the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research and are indexed from 1688-1858.

Peculiar Parishes

These were parishes that were in one archdeaconry or diocese, but came under another jurisdiction that was usually other church officials and their judicatures. Some peculiar parishes had their own probate courts.

How to find a Will - Wills and testaments after 1858

This will explain how to find a will when looking for a will dated after 1858. Any will or administration proved after 1858 is held by The Principal Registry in London along with the indexes that are known as The National Probate Calendar.

It was not uncommon for it to take months or years before probate was granted so any research should first be made in the year of death and up to 2 years afterwards.

A copy of an entry in the calendar:

Hill Emma of 19 Harvills Hawthorn West Bromwich Staffordshire widow died 23 June 1909 Administration Lichfield 29 November to Emma Hill spinster Effects £62 11s

Information found on a Will

After you have read about how to find a will, you will hopefully have more idea of where to look to find a will.  Wills can be very useful to the genealogist because they give details of the deceased's family and provide details of what the person owned at the time of death from houses to personal effects.

The first thing you notice when looking at a will is that they normally start with the sentence, This is the last will and testament of ..... to show this is the most recent will and rescinded any previous will and testament.

A will states the legacies left by the testator in the event of their death.

It mentions where the testator was living at the time the will was prepared, and also mentions their occupation. It also usually includes a declaration the testator was of sound mind.

The date on which the will was written was stated, but although there is often very little time between the will being written and the testator dying, sometimes many years pass before it is proved - that is when the executor of the will takes it to the court and states it was authentic and in accordance with the deceased's last wishes.

Executors stated they were prepared to fulfil the deceased's instructions. A provision was made in the will that any possible debts of the testator and their funeral expenses had to be paid before the residue was distributed.

A will may contain information about the deceased's family you were unaware of. If there is a gap in parish registers, you may find the only way of proving a relationship, for example that of a late father and his daughter, is by looking to see if the deceased left a will as it may contain information proving the connection.

Your ancestor could be mentioned in any possible wills of other family members, thus opening up a whole new avenue to research. If your ancestor was married, you may find they are mentioned in a will of a member of their wife's or husband's family.

A codicil was sometimes added to the will if the testator wanted to add information and instructions to an existing will without making out a new one.

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