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Probate records are court records dealing with the distribution of a person’s estate after death. Information recorded may include the death date, names of heirs and guardians, relationship, residence, inventories of the estate (including trade and household goods), and names of witnesses. Any person, regardless of class or wealth, may have left a will or might be mentioned in one.
While probate records are one of the most accurate sources of genealogical evidence, use them with caution because they may:
- Omit the name of the eldest son who received his inheritance according to law, others who previously received their inheritance, or deceased family members.
- Mention children who are from a spouse’s previous marriage.
- Mention a spouse who is not the parent of the children named.
Types of Probate Records
Will. Technically, a will conveys real (immovable) property to heirs after an individual’s death. A registered will is an official copy made by a court clerk.
Testament. A testament conveys personal (move-able) property to heirs. The term will eventually referred to both a will and a testament.
Administration, Letters of Administration, or Admon. These names refer to a document appointing someone to supervise the estate’s distribution for someone who died intestate (without a valid will). This document gives very little information but may contain some useful clues, such as the name of the administrator, who was usually a relative of the deceased.
Admon with Will. This record grants administration to someone else when the executor named in the will is deceased, unwilling, or unable to act as executor. A copy of the will is attached.
Inventory. An inventory lists belongings and their values, including such items as household goods, tools, and personal items. Occupations are often mentioned.
Bond. A bond is a written guarantee that a person will faithfully perform the tasks assigned to him by a probate court. The executor posted a testamentary bond, the administrator posted an administration bond, and the guardian of a minor child posted a bond of tuition or curation.
Laws and Customs
Wills were made primarily by the middle and upper classes, mostly by males with property. Before 1882 a wife who died before her husband could not make a will except with her husband’s consent or under a marriage settlement created before her marriage. A widow, however, could make a will.
Before 1750 heirs often did not prove wills to avoid court costs. The will was often kept in case someone later objected to the distribution of the property. As a result, sometimes wills were probated decades after the testator’s death. Some archives have collections of unproved wills. Others may be among family papers.
Until 1833 real property could be entailed. This specified how property would be inherited in the future. An entail prevented subsequent inheritors from bequeathing the property to anyone except the heirs specified in the entail.
When a father or widow died leaving minor children, relatives usually took in the children without court sanction. Sometimes, the court appointed a guardian or curator to look after the children’s interests until they reached the age of 21. If a child was under marriageable age, guardianship was called tuition. Under age was considered 12 for girls and 14 for boys. If the child was of marriageable age, but under 21, it was called curation.
Probating a Will
Usually the location of the deceased property determined which court had jurisdiction (see "Determining the Court" in this section). The probate process began by presenting the will to the court. The court recorded a probate act authorizing executors to carry out the wills provisions. The original will was endorsed and filed in the court’s records. A handwritten copy was given to the executors. (Before 1600 the executors may have received the original.) The clerk may also have copied the will into a book of registered wills.
If a person did not agree with how the court handled the will, he or she could appeal to a higher court. This led to additional documents in the court of appeal, including assignation books (calendars of petitions of appeal, annotated with action taken) and other documents. Unless a complaint was filed, there were usually no further court records. Probating a will took place any time after the person died sometimes many years later.
Pre-1858 Probate Courts
In Wales, four types of church courts probated wills: peculiar, archdeaconry, Bishops’, and the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. Usually the court with primary jurisdiction probated the will, but wealth, status, or convenience could have affected which court was used.
Following are descriptions of the four types of Welsh probate courts:
- Peculiar courts had limited jurisdiction over small areas (sometimes just one parish). The only peculiar court in Wales is the Hawarden Peculiar, which covers Hawarden parish in Flintshire.
- Archdeaconry courts were divisions of a diocese. The only archdeaconries which had probationary jurisdiction were in the diocese of St. David’s. The probate records for St. David’s diocese were divided into two groups: the Archdeaconry Court of Brecon, and the combined archdeaconries of St. David’s, Cardigan, and Carmarthen and Gower.
- Bishops’ courts (also called episcopal, commissary, diocesan, or consistory courts) were the highest local courts. In Wales there were four main bishops’ courts: Bangor, Llandaf, St. Asaph, and St. David’s. A small area in Flintshire and Denbighshire was under the jurisdiction of the Bishops’ Court of Chester in England. Parts of Monmouth, Montgomeryshire and Radnorshire were under the jurisdiction of the Bishops’ Court of Hereford in England.
- The Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) was the highest court. This court was used if the deceased had property in more than one diocese.
If a court’s decision was disputed, additional records may be found among later records of the same court or in any court of higher jurisdiction. Decisions made in the diocesan and archdeaconry courts in Wales could be appealed to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and then to the Court of Arches (of Canterbury). Final appeals from all courts were taken to the Pope until 1533. They were then taken to the Court of Delegates until 1832, after which the Privy Council handled them.
Counties and Courts
Here is a list of the counties of Wales and the courts that had primary jurisdiction over all or part of them: (Click on a county name to learn more.)
|Anglesey||Court of the Bishop of Bangor|
|Breconshire||Court of the Archdeaconry of Brecon|
|Caernarfonshire||Court of the Bishop of Bangor|
|Cardiganshire||Court of the Bishop of St. David|
|Carmarthenshire||Court of the Bishop of St. David|
|Denbighshire||Court of the Bishop of St. Asaph; Court of the Bishop of Bangor|
|Flintshire||Court of the Bishop of St. Asaph; Court of the Bishop of Chester|
|Glamorgan||Court of the Bishop of Llandaff; Court of the Bishop of St. David|
|Merionethshire||Court of the Bishop of St. Asaph; Court of the Bishop of Bangor|
|Monmouthshire||Court of the Bishop of Llandaff; Court of the Bishop of Hereford; Court of the Archdeaconry of Brecon|
|Montgomeryshire||Court of the Bishop of St. Asaph; Court of the Bishop of Bangor; Court of the Bishop of St. David; Court of the Bishop of Hereford|
|Pembrokeshire||Court of the Bishop of St. David|
|Radnorshire||Court of the Archdeaconry of Brecon; Court of the Bishop of Hereford|
Original wills in Wales have survived from 1565, depending on the court where they were probated. The courts have a continuous run of wills from then until 1858, when ecclesiastical probate courts were abolished.
The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth hold copies of wills proved in Welsh ecclesiastical courts:
- Bangor: 1635 - 1858
- Brecon: 1543 - 1858
- Chester (Welsh wills only): 1557 - 1858
- Hawarden: 1554 - 1858
- Llandaf: 1568 - 1857
- St Asaph: 1565 - 1857
- St David's: 1556 - 1858
Post-1857 Probate Courts
On 11 January 1858, a network of courts called the Principal Probate Registry replaced all ecclesiastical probate courts. All wills and administrations were then probated at district courts or at a central court in London called the Principal Registry. Online indexes available 1861-1941 for both wills and administrations at ancestry.com under search Tax, Criminal, Land & Wills records Will and Administration Searching.
Estate Duty Wills and Administrations
Beginning in 1796 a tax was levied on probates of estates valued over £10. Copies of the probate documents were filed with the Estate Duty Office in London when the tax was paid. Over the years various exceptions to the laws could have exempted the tax from being paid and a will from being filed.
Locating Probate Records
There are four steps to locating probate records:
- Determine when and where the will might have been proven.
- Determine which court or courts had jurisdiction.
- Search the indexes of the court or courts.
- Search the appropriate probate documents.
Determining the Court
After 1857 it is not necessary to determine the court before searching for a probate record. To determine the court for pre-1858 probates, use one of the following publications:
- Handlist of Probate Records Pertaining to the Diocese of St. David’s, St. Asaph, Bangor, and Llandaff, Wales and of the Peculiar and Exempt Court of Hawarden, Flint County. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1970. (Family History Library book 942.9 S2w; fiche 6054481.) This work contains color-coded maps to help determine the courts in which an estate would be proved. It also lists call numbers for indexes, wills, and administrations that apply to each court.
- Gibson, Jeremy, comp. 4th ed. Probate Jurisdictions: Where to Look for Wills. Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies (Publications) Ltd., 1997. (Family History Library book 942 P23g 1997.)
Many Welsh probate records have indexes. Some indexes are calendars, which are lists of wills organized by date with a separate section for each letter of the alphabet. Surnames with the same first letter are listed together but are not in alphabetical order. The following are of particular importance.
Welsh Probate Indexes Pre-1858. An index to probate records for the various courts in Wales before 1858 has been compiled by The National Library of Wales. The indexes include references to wills, administration bonds, grants of administration, inventories, and other types of probate documents.
The index lists the name of the person who left the will (testator), the parish and abode, the occupation, and the references needed to go directly to the correct page in the wills.
The index is listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
WALES - PROBATE RECORDS
DIGITAL, ONLINE AND INDEXED PRE-1858 FOR FREE
- WALES - PROBATE RECORDS - INDEXES
- Searches of these indexes for all pre-1858 probate records can be made on the National Archives Website under the repository of the National Library of Wales by name, place and Court jurisdiction.
Abstracts of Welsh Wills Pre-1858. An important collection of Welsh probates are the abstracts (summaries) and indexes to the abstracts of the wills that are on microfiche at the Family History Library. The abstracts and indexes are by diocese; however, there is a separate set for the Arch deaconry of Brecon and the peculiar of Hawarden. The abstracts are arranged by year and contain the name of every person mentioned in the will, including the witnesses. There are separate indexes for each year for the:
Principal Probate Registry.From 1858, all the wills and administrations that were proved in any of the district courts in Wales were indexed in the Calendar of the Grants of Probate and Letters of Administration made in the Principal Registry (see England and Wales Principal Probate Registry Including: General Index 1858–1957 Principal Registry 1858–1925 District Courts 1858–1925 in this section). The indexes include an abstract of the probate document with the date proved and the name of the court in which it was proved. These indexes are available online for the years 1861-1941 (with gaps, see site for details) for both wills and administrations at ancestry.com under search Tax, Criminal, Land, and Wills records Will and Administration Searching.
Probate Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Library has an excellent collection of Welsh probate records and indexes, including most pre-1925 wills and indexes for wills and administrations.
To find call numbers for the probate records, look in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
WALES - PROBATE RECORDS
- WALES - PROBATE RECORDS - INDEXES
- WALES, [COUNTY] - PROBATE RECORDS
- WALES, [COUNTY] - PROBATE RECORDS - INDEXES
Some probate records, including those of the Principle Probate Registry, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, and the Estate Duty, are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
- ENGLAND - PROBATE RECORDS
- ENGLAND - PROBATE RECORDS - INDEXES
The following helpful books are available at the Family History Library:
- Hand List of Probate Jurisdictions in Prerogative Court of Canterbury (P.C.C.) and Filmed and Printed Probate Records Pertaining to Prerogative Court of Canterbury in the Genealogical Society Library. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1967. (Family History Library book 942 S2ha vol. 23; film 599220; fiche 6026312.) This work contains call numbers for indexes and probate documents for the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. At the front of this register is a list of printed indexes. These indexes give the testator’s name and place of residence along with the year and folio where the original is located.
- England and Wales Principal Probate Registry Including: General Index 1858–1957 Principal Registry 1858–1925 District Courts 1858–1925. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997. (Family History Library book Reg 942 S2cp 1997; microfiche 6037050.) Contains a list of the microfilm numbers for the indexes and probate documents for the Principal and District courts.
Probate Abstracts, 1544-1858: Courtesy of FamilySearch Historical Records Collection. A more detailed explanation of these records is available in the Wiki.
Records Not at the Family History Library
The original pre-1858 probate records are held by the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. However, the records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and the Estate Duty Registers are deposited at The National Archives in London, England.
For copies of wills or administrations after 1857 you can write to:
York Probate Sub-Registry
York YO1 2EA
If you choose to visit, the office location is:
Probate Search Rooms
First Avenue House
42–49 High Holborn
Sometimes solicitors (attorneys) kept will books, copies of wills they had prepared for clients. These books have often found their way into record offices. The books may include wills that were later revoked or never probated.
Difficulties in Locating a Pre-1858 Record
You may have difficulty locating a probate record because:
- In many courts, there are separate indexes for administrations and wills. Search both indexes.
- For the executor’s convenience, a totally different court may have been used. Search other courts.
- When a higher church authority made an official visit, the lower court was inhibited (prevented from acting). This was called an ecclesiastical visitation. Records of estates probated during an ecclesiastical visitation are often with the records of the higher court.
- If the presiding officer position was vacant, the will was probated in another court.
- Your ancestor’s probate may have been used as evidence in another court action. Other courts, such as the Court of Common Pleas or the county quarter sessions, may have probated or received a copy of the will.
Some wills and many disputes over real property were handled by the Chancery Court of England. Some of the wills in this and other national courts are listed in:
- A List of Wills, Administrations, Etc. in the Public Record Office, London, England: 12th–19th Century. Baltimore: Magna Carta Book Company, 1968. (Family History Library book 942 S2po.)
To overcome the above problems, search the records of all probate courts having jurisdiction over the areas where the individual had property. You may also need to extend your search several years after the individual’s death.
A wiki article describing an online collection is found at:
- ↑ The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Research Outline: Wales (Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President, 2000), 57-61.
- This page was last modified on 26 May 2013, at 14:10.
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