How To Track down a will

How To Track down a will

Wills weren’t just left by the wealthy – follow our guide to tracking down your ancestors’ final wishes and what they reveal

How to, How to

How to

How to

From 1540, any adult was legally entitled to make a ‘will and testament’ – before that, only possessions could be passed on as there were complex rules about the inheritance of land. Discovering an old family will can reveal details about your ancestors’ personal lives which you won’t find elsewhere.

A will only became a legally binding document when it was ‘proved’ in a court, and this process – called probate – generally left a paper trail. Before 1858 in England and Wales, wills were proved by church courts. These were in a complex hierarchy from parish Peculiar Courts all the way up to the Prerogative Courts of York and Canterbury (known to genealogists as PCY and PCC). Your starting point to track these down is probably the local record office where your ancestor lived. Probate records for PCY and PCC are held at the Borthwick Institute in York and at The National Archives at Kew respectively, and online at TheGenealogist.

After 1858, wills were proved in new regional offices and collected under what is now called the Principal Registry of the Family Division. The indexes, organised by year and name, can be searched for free. A postal service is also available and some record offices hold copies on microfiche.

Will Reading
An early 19th century sketch by David Wilkie of a will being read to a family. Wills can be of great value to family historians, revealing important relationships in people’s lives and details of their possessions and status

In focus: Wills

This is the will of George Rougier from the late 19th century.

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  1. The date of the will is near the beginning – it may have been drawn up long before the person died (in this case 1880, and he died in 1891)
  2. The writer of the will (the ‘testator’) names the executors, in this case his wife and a solicitor from York, who may have been a friend – George Rougier was born there, but the wills shows he was later living in Middlesex
  3. The list of chattels bequeathed to his wife reveals something of his wealth – it includes ‘carriages and horses’
Will 2Will 3

  1. The text of wills is often hard to read and reflects the style preferred by lawyers – including the absence of commas, which they believe can introduce ambiguities
  2. Here the testator makes provision for his wife’s two children, both with the surname Chapman – marriage records reveal that to be his wife’s maiden name
  3. As well as the solicitor who presumably drew up the will, a photographer is named

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