Probate records (wills, administrations of estates, and associated documents) are often overlooked as important sources of family history information.
The most important reason these records are valuable to us as genealogists is that, once we manage to get back to before the 1841 census in the UK family tree, this is the only document which is likely to mention all family members - or at least, all surviving family members - in one location.
For children who died prior to the testator, their former spouse and/or any children born to them may also be named.
Further, the probate records associated with the management of the estate can provide information about where family members were located, and might even provide that "missing link" between two branches of a family in two different parts of the country.
In my family, for example, we traced one branch back to the early 1800s, when the family arrived in Canada from England. Family tradition said that this line was part of the peerage, but we had no confirmation of that in the documentation.
A fellow researcher and distant cousin found the family name in the peerage, listing a father and two sons, in the appropriate time period. He then went looking for the probate records. When he obtained a copy of the father's will, it mentioned the two sons, but also named a third son - our ancestor's father.
When contact was made with the British family, they confirmed that the crest in the possession of the Canadian descendants was that of their family.
Lambeth Palace, London England.
Principal residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury,
and home of the Lambeth Palace Library.
Probate records can also tell you important information about relationships among extended family members. For example, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and siblings can be named, thereby establishing and/or confirming blood lines.
Wills and the related documents can also tell you what personal property your ancestors owned, and who they were living with at the time of death.
A definition or two: to 'probate' a will means to present the last will and testament of a deceased person to the court for its approval. Usually, a will was probated, or proven, by the person named in the will as the executor (the one who carries out, or executes, the terms of the deceased's will).
Not all wills had to be probated, and not all were. If it was not, the will is likely to be found among the family's documents and papers, if it still exists.
The ecclesiastical (church) courts did not have the power to deal with bequests of land. A will passing the title (ownership) of land from one person to another was all that was necessary to establish title to the land.
Where an individual died 'intestate' (without a will, or with a will that was 'invalid' - see next paragraph), the court would appoint an administrator to look after the estate, pay off any debts that were outstanding, and then distribute the proceeds of the estate to the descendants of the deceased person, in accordance with the judge's decision as to how the goods should be distributed. The administrator usually was a person closely related to the deceased.
In today's world, a will can be considered invalid for a number of reasons, a few of which are:
Naturally, the person making the allegation that the will is not valid must have some kind of evidence to prove it. Usually, this person is a close family member, and a beneficiary under that will or an earlier one.
A lawsuit of this nature has always meant that many of the family's secrets, "dirty laundry", dysfunctions, and polarities will be aired in public. It also means that we as descendants, several generations later, can get a very good picture of what the family dynamics were like!
Lawsuits challenging the validity of a will took place in the provincial courts, rather than in the ecclesiastical courts.
There are a number of possible outcomes from the challenge of a will:
Where an administration of the estate occurs, there is likely to be a great deal of purely genealogical information available among the probate records.
That is, as noted above, it was the judge's role to decide the distribution of the assets, once all debts had been paid and the remaining proceeds determined.
The lawyer, then, would draw up what amounts to a genealogy chart, showing the descendants of the testator, whether they were still alive, and what "issue" (children) they had, and present it to the judge, to assist in his decision making.
All of that documentation would be included in the probate records.
The Probate Registry offices in the UK handle both kinds of estates - an estate with a will (which may need to be probated), and an estate without a will(for which an administrator has to be appointed). A third situation arises when there is a valid will which named an executor, but the executor either is unwilling or incapable of acting in that capacity.
In all three situations, the Probate Registry Office issues a Grant of Representation, which allows the executor or administrator to deal with the assets in the estate.
Prior to the mid-1800s, only a small percentage of people had wills. They tended to be middle and upper-class individuals - tradesmen and merchants, as well as aristocrats, members of the nobility, and other wealthy people who had land ("real property") and belongings ("personal goods") to be distributed after their death.
Interestingly, prior to 1882, married women were prohibited from making a will without their husband's permission, unless there was provision for her to do so in a marriage settlement. Single women over age 21 and widows, however, were free to make wills.
In England and Wales, the government took over the role of probating wills and administering estates from the church courts in 1858.
Searching for probate records from 1858 and on is relatively straightforward.
The Principal Probate Registry, located in London, England, maintains an index of all wills probated or administered from January 12, 1858 to the present.
Called the National Probate Calendar, the index is organized by year, and then alphabetically within each year.
Each entry in the Calendar contains the name, last known address, occupation, and date of death of the deceased, along with the date of probate and a short summary of the will's contents (i.e., "To Marina Baker, wife of the deceased"). It also states the value of the estate.
The Calendar, consisting of several volumes, can be searched manually at the Principal Probate Registry, which is located at the Probate Search Room, First Avenue House, 42-49 High Holborn, London, WC1V 6NP.
42-49 High Holborn, London, England. Wikimedia Commons
A number of District Probate Registries also exist across England and Wales. As of early 2011, there were 11 District Probate Registry Offices, as well as 18 Probate sub-registry offices.
Parts of the Calendar also are available on microfiche at some of the District Probate Registry offices, although not all offices have complete sets. You might want to telephone before going to a particular Probate Registry Office, to determine what records they have.
Ancestry has the bulk of the National Probate Calendar records online, from 1861 to 1941 - although it seems to be missing the records from 1899 to about 1903 (and possibly a few other years), a fact which I discovered when looking for the will of an ancestor who died in 1899!
To order a copy of a will probated after 1858, write to:
Postal Searches and Copies Department
C/o York Probate Sub-Registry
1st Floor, Castle Chambers
York YO1 9RG
As of 2011, the fee to enclose with the request is £5 for the first copy, and £1 for each additional copy. This fee includes searching for the will and, if it is found, providing copies of the will and/or the Grant of Representation.
Orders by telephone or by e-mail are not accepted.
Prior to 1858, matters related to probate records were handled by the ecclesiastical courts. There was a hierarchy among the courts, as follows, starting from the top and working down:
Cheshire, Cumberland, Durham, the Isle of Man, Lancashire, Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Westmoreland, and York.
The Canterbury court handled all other areas of England and Wales. In addition, it looked after the estates of foreign-resident individuals with property in England and Wales; estates which were above a specific threshold in value (at one time, it was GBP5) and having property in two different dioceses; and estates of British citizens who died while away from England or Wales, such as sailors and soldiers. It also handled the estates of the wealthy.
It is clear from the above that there were many different courts, at several different levels, which could have handled a particular estate. Indeed, there were over 300 courts in England and Wales that handled probate records in the years leading up to 1858.
Thomas a Becket becoming Archbishop of Canterbury.
12th Century. Wikimedia Commons.
Generally speaking, the court handling probate records and matters was determined by where the deceased's assets were located. However, there were some exceptions.
As partly mentioned above, the estates of the wealthy, non-conformists (i.e., non-Anglicans after the Reformation, and non-Catholics before that), and individuals who died outside England and Wales, were handled by the Court of Canterbury, regardless of where their assets actually were.
If your ancestors fit into one of those categories, then, you need look no further than the Prerogative Court of Canterbury for their probate records.
During the time that Oliver Cromwell was in power, from 1649 to 1660, the ecclesiastical courts were disbanded. There was only one court that processed probates, located in London, for all of England.
When the monarchy was restored in 1660, the ecclesiastical courts were brought back, and continued as before. Probate records from this time period were merged with those in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.
The following chart will assist in determining which court was likely to have probated a will or processed the administration of an estate, all other things being equal:
|Court||Location of Estate Assets|
|Archdeacon's court||All within one archdeaconry|
In 2+ archdeaconries, within the same diocese
|Archbishop's prerogative court||
In 2+ dioceses
If estate valued at £5+ (£10+ in London),
in more than one diocese
Most of the probate records from the pre-1858 period are located in local archives or record offices.
It therefore is necessary to know where your ancestor was living at the time of death, an approximate date of death, and whether one of the exceptions above applied which would elevate his/her will to the higher-level courts, in order to make an 'educated guess' as to which archive is likely to house the probate records you are looking for.
Then, you can decide whether to start from the top of the court system and work your way down, or start from the bottom and work your way up.
There is no central index for all of the probate records from the different courts. Many of the wills that are in the various courts' records, however, have been indexed at the archives for that area, and the index can be searched. Some of the indices have been placed online.
The Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York, holds the records of the Prerogative Court of York.
St. Anthony's Hall, York. Former home of the Borthwick Institute for Archives. That facility has now moved to the University itself, to a building specifically built for it. Wikimedia Commons
Indexes to wills proved by the Prerogative and Exchequer Courts of York, 1731 to 1858, are available by subscription at British Origins.
The records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are held at the National Archives at Kew in London.
The National Archives also have transcribed all of the wills handled in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury from 1384 to 1858, and have made them available online to be viewed and downloaded, at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/wills.htm
Wills proven between 1312 and 1384 before the Archbishop of Canterbury are located at the Lambeth Palace Library, along with a few from the period between 1384 to 1500.
The National Archives also are home to the Administration Act Books, for the years 1559-1858, with respect to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.
The Mormons' Family History Centers also have this index, and the wills themselves, on microfilm, from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. These can be ordered to the Family History Center nearest you for viewing.
With respect to wills probated or estates administered (probate records) in lower courts, the National Archives has a page called Your Archives, with links to probate records and archives in various counties in England and Wales.
It appears that this list has been generated from user contributions. It may or may not be complete, but it certainly is a good starting place for determining where to go in a particular county or area to look for archived wills or estate administrations.
The National Archives' ARCHON directory also is useful in this regard, as it allows users to search its resources by county. Once on the county page, it then is possible to scroll down to the probate records section. You may find an online search function for an index there, or a reference number telling you which microfilms to search.
All in all, searching for probate records in the pre-1858 period is somewhat of a challenge, but not impossible. That probated will or administered estate may provide you with a goldmine of genealogical information that is well worth the effort of finding it.
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