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Did your ancestor leave a will?
Family Tree

Did your ancestor leave a will?

Posted 02 October 2017   |   2312 views   |   General Interest   |   Comments (0) For non-family historians, the appeal of a long-lost relative’s will is that they might find themselves a beneficiary. But for us, wills can provide an invaluable collection of names, relationships and clues to family members from times gone by. June Terrington examines this rich collection of records

So, you’ve found several ancestors, and used several sources in your family history research, but now you would like to check whether any of your ancestors have left a will.

Finding wills before 1858
Wills and administrations before 1858 were proved by the church court. Not all wills needed proving by a court, not everyone left a will, and to this day many still don’t. However, those that did chose the appropriate court – out of the 250-plus in existence. The wealthy tended to opt for the Prerogative Courts of either Canterbury or York. Mostly Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) wills dealt with southern England 1384-1858 can be found at the The National Archives (TNA). The Prerogative Court of York, meanwhile, dealt with northern England 1389-1858. Therefore your first task in using wills dating from before 1858 will be to identify which court dealt with your ancestor’s will.

What are probate records?
Probate is the process of dealing with someone’s money, possessions and final wishes after they die. In probate, a will is ‘proved’ in court and accepted as a valid public document that is the true last testament of the deceased. The probate court decides whether the deceased person’s will is valid and grants it to the executor. This then becomes a legal document.

About the National Probate Calendar
The National Probate Calendar (NPC) is an annual index to grants of probate and administration of deceased persons’ estates in England and Wales, from 1858 to the present day. The index has been microfilmed from 1858 up to 1943, and microfiches or microfilm of these years are available to view in many record offices and in some probate offices (not all years may be covered in any particular office). Some offices also have bound volumes for at least some of the years after 1943.

What can you discover from the NPC?
To search the NPC, start with your ancestor’s year of death, if known, and work forward.

• The entries are in surname order and then of first name(s) within each surname.

• A typical entry from the years 1858-1891 will tell you the full name of the deceased, including any aliases, the amount of his/her personal estate, date and place of death, occupation (or marital status for a woman), residence, and sometimes also previous residence, date and place where probate or administration was granted.

• From 1918 onwards, the occupation of the deceased is not given.

The entries in the NPC pertain to people who had money and or property in England and Wales (regardless of which country they actually died in). For some years, Irish and Scottish entries are in a separate section, but for other years they are included in the main index. As well as Irish and Scottish entries, there are some from all over the world, although the details may not be as full as for English and Welsh entries.

What can a will tell you?
If you find a will for a deceased ancestor it may contain useful information on other relatives such as: a spouse or children, whether they were married, or had grandchildren; the death date and age of the deceased; hopefully a birth date and place might be given; often his/her occupation will be mentioned; and also bequests made. Find also the signatures of at least two witnesses (who must not benefit from the will), and the signature of the testator
As you can see, tracking down an ancestor’s will can provide a wealth of evidence for your research!

Where to look for wills?

• – Find the Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills indexes and images

• – research Prerogative Court of York records

• – Explore the index to wills and testaments 1513-1925

• – wills proved in the Welsh Ecclesiastical courts before 1858

• – Calendars of Wills
and Administrations 1858-1922      for Ireland

• – Can your family history society help? Many have transcribed wills projects. Find the relevant society for the area you’re interested in

• – Search Findmypast for transcriptions created by societies too, and other wills collections, such as that for British India.

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For over 30 years, Family Tree has been helping amateurs and experts trace, research and discover the secrets behind their family history. In every issue, you’ll find practical step-by-step guides and helpful tips for researching your ancestry, with the aim of making the whole experience simple, interesting and fun!

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