Finding your ancestor’s will can be a crucial breakthrough in researching your family tree.
Now there’s been good news for family historians, as the Ministry of Justice announced that it’s cutting the cost of ordering probate records from £10 to £1.50 for the next 12 months.
But what are probate records, and how do you find them?
Until the middle of the 19th century, the proving of wills or the granting of administrations came within the jurisdiction of the Church.
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.
The Calendars refer to three main types of record: ‘Probate’ or ‘Grant and Will’, where a will existed and was provided; ‘Administration (Admon) with Will’ or ‘Grant and Will’, where a will existed and was provided; and ‘Administration or Grant’, where a will did not exist.
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, no address or relationship is given for 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 (PCC) 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.
There are three ways of searching the Calendars online: the government website, Ancestry and Findmypast. Each offers different options and covers different time periods.
The government’s Find a Will Service offers three, free search options: 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).
The last two offer Basic and Advanced search options, however searches for entries between 1858 and 1995 are only by surname and year, making it time-consuming to use.
The Probate Calendars for 1858 to 1995 are available on Ancestry.
The search options 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).
Finally, two search methods are available on Findmypast, although only up to 1959.
The Full Text Search allows a search of the entire text for every entry, and will therefore find information such as full name and address of both testator and executors (where included).
Findmypast provides very useful information about the various possibilities, and how to get the best from this comprehensive search option.
Alternatively, you can browse the images of the Calendars.
You provide the first letter of your ancestor’s last name and the year, then navigate through the books.
This option can be useful if you are unsure of the spelling of the name, because you can look through page by page to find possible options.