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WILLS AND OTHER PROBATE DOCUMENTS
 
  General

Wills often furnish vital information for genealogists.

They can:

   
  • define precise relationships within family groups
  • name relatives in different parts of the country and the world
  • name children, nephews or nieces whose existence you never suspected
  • bring to light family skeletons such as acknowledging illegitimate children
  • add "flesh to the bones" of a genealogical study by providing a guide to the wealth and life style of an ancestor
     
    The key date in searching for wills is 11 January 1858. From this date the jurisdiction of proving wills in England and Wales passed from the anglican church to the state. Before this date the archives relating to ecclesiastical courts are all important. From this date the Probate Registry is the key repository for wills and other probate documents.
     
   
     
  Information Provided

National Probate Calendar / Index (index to wills and letters of administration proved from 1858 onwards)

 
  • Annual index for the whole of England and Wales arranged in surname/forename order of the deceased
  • Deceased - forenames, surname, address, date of death, place of death
  • Probate Grant - date grant issued, issuing registry office, type of grant, names of executors or administrators, value of the estate
  • Executors/Administrators - names, addresses, relationship to deceased
  Wills
 
  • Wills vary widely in the information they provide
  • However many wills provide names of spouses, children, grandchildren and other relatives
  • Many also clarify family relationships if there is more than one person with the same forename
  • Wills can also clarify the marital status of a daughter (i.e. if referred to as "spinster") or assist in locating a daughter's marriage by giving her husband's surname
  • Addresses of relatives may be given which may show immigration
  • Provide an indication of the wealth and lifestyle of the deceased
  Letters of Administration (for deaths where deceased left no will)
 
  • Deceased - forenames, surname, date of death, place of death, occupation, address
  • Will administrator - forenames, surname, relationship to deceased, occupation, address
     
   
     
  Caution

Named relatives

   
  • Wills only reflect the situation at their time of writing (which can be a long time before the deceased's death) so do not assume that all the relatives named in the will are still alive when the will is carried out
  • In older wills, 'in laws' are commonly referred to as just brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, etc. without the 'in law' suffix
    Missing Relatives
   
  • Never assume that all the deceased's children are referred to in a will - it was quite common to make lifetime gifts to children instead, particularly the eldest son
    Married Women
   
  • Prior to the 1882 Married Women's Property Act only spinsters, widows and married woman who had their husbands consent left wills
    Delays between Death and Probate
   
  • It is wise to search the indexes for at least 3 years after the date of the ancestor's death
    Language
   
  • Before 1733 (apart from 1651-60) texts, sentences and probate clauses were written in Latin
     
   
     
  Access - National Probate Calendar (index to wills and letters of administration proved from 1858 onwards)
  1858 onwards
  • NOW AVAILABLE ONLINE - the full set of indexes from 1861 to 1941 can now be viewed online at ancestry.co.uk - this digitised collection of over 6 million names allows you to search by name and approximate year of probate (which will be close to the date of death) so greatly simplyfying your search for a particular will - once you've found your match you can view the original printed image - this usually provides the deceased's name, their date and place of death, the name of the executor (who is often another member of the family) and the value of the estate - armed with all these details you will be able to obtain a copy of the will far quicker from the Probate Registry than would otherwise be the case and at less cost (see below)
   
example extract from the 1924 National Probate Calendar
   
    Other Access:
   
    Obtaining copies of Wills (proved from 1858 onwards)
   
  • Order by post from The Postal Searches and Copies Department, Leeds District Probate Registry, York House, York Place, Leeds LS1 2BA. The PA1S order form can be downloaded from www.courtservice.gov.uk. The form requires details of the deceased (name, date of death, address) which can be found in the National Probate Index (see above). Tick the box for a General Search (the box for a Standing Search is only for deaths in the last 6 months). Please note that this department is not contactable by telephone and can only answer written enquiries.
  • Alternatively you can order in person at the Principal Probate Registry or at other registries and sub-registries (key in probate in the court work type search to find local registry office)
  • The minimum information required when ordering is the deceased's full name and the date of death as close as you can get to it. It costs £10 for the search and a single copy of the grant of probate together with the will (if any).
  • To narrow down the search you may wish to consult the National Probate Index yourself first. See above for where you can access this index. You will then be able to provide details of the actual date of death, the grant type, the issuing Registry and the grant issue date. This will considerably speed up the supply of the copied will.
   
   
   
  Access - Pre 1858 Wills - Determining which Ecclesiastical Court had Jurisdiction
  Pre 1858
  • Consult the annual indexes to Death Duty Registers to determine which ecclesiastical court proved a will - microfilmed copies of the indexes from 1796 onwards can be viewed at the National Archives or at your local LDS Family History Centre - however bear in mind that only wills on which duty was payable are listed
  • If your ancestor lived south of the River Humber or in Wales and was relatively wealthy or died after 1800 there is a fair chance that the will was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC)
  • If you ancestor died abroad or at sea leaving behind property in England or Wales then the court having jurisdiction would also be the central Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC)
  • By the 1830s over a third of all wills in England and Wales were proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC)
  • If your ancestor was relatively wealthy and lived in the northern counties then it is possible that the will was proved in the central Prerogative Court of York (PYC)
  • Otherwise if none of the above applies, it is most likely that the will was proved in one of the many lower level ecclesiastical courts of which there were over 250
    Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) Wills
   
  • The index to and scanned images of the original Perogative Court of Canterbury Wills (over 930,000 records) can now be accessed online at the Genealogist subscription site
  • All wills that were proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) between 1384 and 1858 are held at the National Archives at Kew
  • Any PCC will can be viewed there provided 3 days notice is given (the wills are stored off-site.
    Prerogative Court of York (PYC) Wills
   
    Wills proved in Other Ecclesiastical Courts in England
   
  • Most wills for other ecclesiastical courts (archdeacon courts, bishop diocesan courts, peculiar courts) are held in the relevant Record Office
  • Note however that the jurisdiction of dioceses or archdeconries did not coincide with county boundaries - probate records of the church courts are sometimes held in the record office for the county in which the seat of the bishop or archdeacon was located - for example the records for Derbyshire and Staffordshire are held at the record office in Lichfield, the records for Surrey are held at the London Metropolitan Archives, those for Rutland are held at the Northampton Record Office and so on.
  • In the case of Yorkshire, this is the Borthwick Institute except for wills proved in the Archdeaconry of Richmond and the peculiars of Arkengarthdale, Hunsingore, Knaresborough, Masham and Middleham in which case the wills are held at Leeds Archives
  • Most of these wills have been indexed and many of the indexes can be viewed at your local LDS Family History Centre
    Wills proved in Welsh Ecclesiastical Courts
   
   
   
 
This page last updated: 27 August 2014