How are wills used in family history?
Your ancestors’ wills are a crucial family history resource. You can use wills to confirm your family member’s date of death, discover how much property they owned and find other relatives who they named as heirs.
What is probate?
Probate is the process of dealing with the property, money and possessions of a person who has died, usually laid out in their will.
Until the middle of the 19th century, the process of handling probate through proving wills or granting administrations came from church courts such as the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.
But from 12 January 1858 a civil Court of Probate for England and Wales was established, with the Principal Registry in London and numerous other district registries.
The district registries sent copies of all Grants of Probate, and all wills associated with them, and all Grants of Letters of Administration to the Principal Registry where annual centralised indexes were prepared.
These are known as the Probate Calendars, and are now all available to search online.
What can you find out from the Probate Calendars?
The Calendars include those who left a will and those died intestate (with no will) but with an estate that had to be administered. Records that say ‘Probate’, ‘Grant and Will’, ‘Administration (Admon) with Will’ or just ‘Will’ refer to records where a will existed and was provided. Records that just say ‘Administration’ or ‘Administration or Grant’ refer to people who died intestate and for whom there is no will.
The arrangement and content of the Calendars has changed over time.
Within the annual volumes, with names arranged alphabetically, wills and administrations are listed separately from 1858 to 1870. A single sequence starts in 1871.
Note that the Calendars are arranged by date of probate, not date of death. Although probate was usually completed soon after the death there could be considerable delay, sometimes decades or longer.
The Probate Calendars can contain a great deal of useful information, although this also changes over time. For wills from 1858 to 1891 you could get: the name of the deceased; their address and occupation (or “wife of”, “widow of” or “spinster” in the case of a woman); date and place of death; names, occupations and addresses of executors, together with any relationship to the deceased; and date of probate and name of the Registry.
From 1892 to 1957, the wills don’t contain the address or relationship of the executors; and from 1959 to 1967 no details of husbands are included.
From 1968 the information decreases still further and only the name, address and date of death of the testator are given, together with the date and place of the grant.
Included in the Calendars are Irish probates and administrations and Scottish confirmations resealed in England, 1858 to 1930 – until 1876 these are listed after the letter ‘Z’; also, reseals of colonial grants from 1894 to 1930.
Wills and administrations from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills, which was previously responsible for probate in southern England and most of Wales, from 1 to 9 January 1858 are included in the 1858 Calendars.
Unfortunately, the wills of soldiers (not commissioned officers) who were killed in action in conflicts from the Crimean War onwards are not included in the main series of Calendars.
Where are wills kept?
You can currently order wills from the government’s Find a Will website for just £1.50 each.
To order a will, go to the website. There are three options to choose from: Wills and Probate 1858–1995; Wills and Probate 1996 to present (new probate records appear online approximately 14 days after the grant of representation has been issued); and Soldier’s Wills (1850–1986). You should then enter the surname of the deceased and their year of death. In this case, I’m looking for the will of novelist Charles Dickens, who died in 1870.
You will be shown the Probate Calendars for that year. You will need to click the numbers at the top of the page to go through the wills until you find the one you’re looking for.
Once you’ve found it, enter the details from the probate record into the boxes on the right of the page. You should select the date of probate and date of death from the calendars on the right, then enter the first name (s) of deceased, then select the registry from the drop-down menu, then enter the folio number, which is the number on the top left of the page. Note that Charles Dickens’ will was proved at the Principal Registry. You should then click ‘Add to basket’ to purchase a copy of the will.
The search options for searching the wills include: first and middle name(s); last name; death date and location; Probate Registry date and location; and keyword (which identifies only the names of the deceased, and the death and probate locations).
If you are trying to trace Irish ancestry, please see our separate guide to Irish wills.