Making the Best Use of Wills in Family History Research

Wills are important in family history research because they provide details of the deceased's family and what the person owned at the time of his death from houses to personal effects.  They also state the many bequests and provisions the testator had made at the time of their death, thus providing you with details of their family, which may involve relatives you did not know existed.

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.  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.

A will makes provision for immovable property such as buildings and land to be distributed to beneficiaries, whilst a testament conveys movable property such as money, clothing and furniture to beneficiaries.  These two are brought together, with a will often being referred to as a last will and testament.

Wills normally start with the sentence, this is the last will and testament of ... to show that this is the most recent will and rescinded any previous will and testament.  

There are many reasons why a will is important in family history research, which I describe in this page.  I then go on to explain the differences between a will dated pre-1858 and a will dated after 1858, when wills were recorded centrally, and where they are located.

Why a Will is Important in Family History Research

A will mentions where the testator was living at the time the will was prepared, which can help you to narrow down an address or village.  This is very useful if you were uncertain of the area your ancestor was living in when he died.

The Deceased's Occupation Can Be Mentioned

Wills may mention the deceased's occupation, which can help to give an idea of how your ancestor lived.  

Relatives of the Deceased are Mentioned

A will may contain information about the deceased's family you were unaware of.  If there is a gap in the parish registers, for example, you may find the only way of proving a relationship such as 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.

My ancestor, Joseph Scrivener, left a will when he died in 1808.  I had long suspected that he had a daughter Eleanor, but had been unable to prove it because the parish registers were missing for the period that her baptism would have taken place. 

By looking at Joseph's will, and seeing who he had bequeathed money and possessions to, I was finally able to prove that Eleanor was Joseph's daughter because he mentioned her in his will.

Track Down Lost Relatives

If a woman has seemingly disappeared from the records, and you are unable to trace her by her maiden name, looking at the will of her father, if he left one, may help you to track down her married name if she had married by this time.  This will open up another avenue for you to explore.

Ancestor Mentioned in Other Wills

Your ancestor could be mentioned in any possible wills of other family members, which can help you to move forward with your research.  If your ancestor was married, you may find that they are mentioned in the will of a member of their wife's or husband's family.  

Find Family in the Period Before Census Returns

If you are looking in a period before census returns, a will may be the only record in which the whole family may be listed.  If a family member is not listed, they could have died, which may help to give you a clue as to when the death had taken place.

Wills Include the Date the Will Was Written and Proved

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 passed before it was proved.  The executor takes the will to court and states it was authentic and in accordance with the deceased's last wishes.

A codicil can sometimes be added to a will after it has been prepared.  This can either be because the testator wished to make provision for another relative, or because one or more of the beneficiaries had died, which can help you to track down a death certificate.

It could also be because of a family feud, and the testator was venting his frustration at the circumstance by removing him/her from the will, which can give an insight into family relationships.

In the will of Joseph Scrivener, he stated in the codicil that in his last will he had left his daughter Ann the sum of two hundred and fifty pounds.

He now wished that Joseph and Richard, his two sons, should place that money into trust for his daughter Ann and pay her the interest from the said money, which he stated should be hers and free from the debts, demand or control of her current husband.  He obviously did not trust his daughter's husband very much!!! 

The man was very keen to retain control of the family, even from beyond the grave, and did not want to see his hard-earned money and property go into the hands of a wastrel husband.

Relatives and Possessions Mentioned in Detail

Although more recent wills are still very useful to the family historian today, older wills tended to give much more detail regarding family members and relationships.  It was more common for people to have larger families centuries ago, and they wished to ensure that all members were included in their will.

It is not uncommon for an older will to mention sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, cousins, brothers (could be brothers-in-law), sisters (could be sisters-in-law), kinswomen, or kinsmen.  A will could even mention a godson or goddaughter.  Housekeepers and servants are also sometimes mentioned in an older will.

If a nephew or niece is mentioned in the will of their uncle or aunt, their father or mother may have died, so it is worth checking death records to see if that was the case.

In Francis Twigden's will dated 1787, he gave his lands to his great-nephew John Twigden.  This gave me another avenue to explore.  He also mentioned his godson Martin Warren Walker, whom he stated was the son of Alexander Walker of Birmingham.  Francis married Sarah Goodfellow on 14 October 1762 in Northampton St Giles, and mentioned her family in his will.

Individual possessions were bequeathed in more detail; Richard Scrivener, whose will was written in 1723, gave his sons Thomas and Edward, and his daughter Margaret, half a crown each to buy them a pair of gloves.

Margaret Scrivener, in her will dated 1690, gave napkins and table cloths to one of her nieces.  She gave another of her nieces a pewter platter and porringer.  Kitchen utensils, household furniture, and farming implements were often considered important enough to be mentioned in a will.

You are very unlikely to see individual possessions bequeathed in so much detail today.

Burial Requests

Some wills state where the deceased wished to be buried, which can help you to track down their burial place.  If the deceased wished to be buried alongside other family members, this may help you to track down other relatives who had been buried in this area in the past.  This could lead you on an exciting journey of discovery.

Do not Despair if Your Ancestor is not Mentioned

If your ancestor was not mentioned in his father's will, it does not necessarily mean that he was disinherited.  If he was the eldest son, he may have inherited property before his father's decease, and as such the father felt that the son had already received his inheritance.  

If your ancestor was a daughter, she may have received her share when she married, so would not be named in the will.

How to Find a Will 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 highest church court in England Wales until 1858 was the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.

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. 

There is no central index for wills dated pre 1858, so you will need to know the county your ancestor lived.  The record office local to that area normally holds the will.

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. 

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.

Wills Proved in the County Your Ancestor Lived or Held Land

If you wish to find a will dated pre 1858, you have to go to the record office in area your ancestor lived, such as the Norfolk Record Office for wills proved in Norfolk, or the Northamptonshire Record Office for wills proved in Northamptonshire.

It is always possible that your ancestor held land in more than one county, therefore the will may have been proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury or York.

Married Women and Poorer People Did Not Normally Leave Wills

You may find not many married women made a will as she needed her husband's consent. Even if a woman had obtained her husband's consent, he could withdraw that consent at any time up to when the will was proven.

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.  A married woman obtained complete control of her property in 1893.

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

The Different Courts

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 Court normally dealt with wealthier people who lived in Wales or the South of England.  If the person died at sea and held property in England or Wales, it was also proved in Canterbury. 

If the testator held property in both the northern and southern province, probate would be granted Canterbury.

The value of the property had to be over £5, or £10 in London, to be proved in this court.  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.

Courts of York

If you wish to find a will of a person living in Yorkshire and Northern England, and he had property in the northern province and in more than one diocese, which was the diocese of Chester, Carlisle, Durham, and York, or he held property in the northern province in more than one jurisdiction, research should be carried out in the courts of the Archbishop of York.

If your ancestor lived in the area covered by the diocese of Chester, probate records are held in the Leeds branch of the West Yorkshire Archives Service.  If the deceased's will came under the jurisdiction of the Prerogative Court of York, however, the will would still be held by the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research.

If the person died in the Commonwealth period (1653-1660), the will would have been proved in London because a civil probate court was established in 1653, which had jurisdiction over the whole county.  These wills are held by the National Archives.

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.

Wills and Testaments after 1858

All wills proved after 12 January 1858 are recorded centrally and annually indexed, making it much easier to find a will dated after 1858.  

Finding a Will of a Deceased Person

Any will or administration proved after 1858 is held by The Principal Registry in London, established on 12 January 1858, along with the indexes that are known as The National Probate Calendar.  Many district probate registries were created around the country.

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 5 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

It is now possible to view the National Probate Calendar online, which has been indexed, and to order a copy of a will.  The current price of a will is £10.

> Wills are Important in Family History Research