England and Wales - Solving research problems using probate records
Syllabus for class taught by Evva C. Benson, British Patron Service Manager at FamilySearch's Family History Library, presented at NGS 2010 Conference
In England and Wales, probate records are one of the best sources of direct (and indirect) information about your ancestors prior to civil registration and census records. Probate records supplement and may even predate parish registers. This class will focus on how to locate English and Welsh probate records and how to use them in solving genealogical problems.
- 1 WHAT IS A PROBATE RECORD?
- 2 HOW CAN IT HELP ME?
- 3 DEFINITIONS OF PROBATE TERMS
- 4 THE PROBATE SYSTEM
- 5 ESTATE DUTY OR DEATH DUTY REGISTERS
- 6 WILL INDEXES ONLINE
- 7 STRATEGIES
- 8 SUGGESTED READING
WHAT IS A PROBATE RECORD?
A probate record was typically either a will or an administration (see below for definitions). A will was probated when it was taken and “proven” to be valid in a court of probate after the death of the testator. In the case of someone who died without leaving a will (intestate), the next of kin or a creditor would apply to the court for a letter of administration granting them the right to administer the estate of the deceased in accordance with inheritance laws.
HOW CAN IT HELP ME?
You may think only rich people left wills, but that is not the case. People such as butchers, shoemakers, husbandman, and even laborers left wills. In 16th and 17th century England and Wales, it has been estimated that as many as 25% of males left wills. Widows and “spinsters” also left wills. By the 19th century this percentage is lower, between 5-10%. It is encouraging to remember that even more people are mentioned IN wills than ever left wills.
Wills can help you directly and indirectly. Perhaps you will find the will of your ancestor who names his wife, all of his children, their spouses, and their children. This will give you direct proof of kinship. You may find a will that disproves a questioned link. For those who are patient, wills are a goldmine of indirect evidence that can circumvent brick walls. Thanks to the Internet, doing a probate search is becoming easier every day. Thanks to the Family History Library, 90-95% of English and Welsh probate records have been filmed and are available through family history centers.
DEFINITIONS OF PROBATE TERMS
- Will: The document expressing the wishes of the testator as to the disposition of his or her property after he or she is deceased. Technically, real property (land) was devised by a will and personal (moveable) property was bequeathed in a testament. The two together were the “will and testament,” shortened to will.
- Testator or Testatrix: The person who made a will.
- Intestate: A person who died without a making a will.
- Executor or Executrix: The person named in a will by a testator who is authorized to administer the terms of the will.
- Codicil: An addition to a will made after the first will was written and signed.
- Administration (Admon): A grant to the next-of-kin (or another) who applied to administer the property of the intestate.
- Act Book: The court’s day-by-day account of the official grants of probate proceedings.
- Inventory: A list of the deceased’s personal and household goods, with their appraised value.
THE PROBATE SYSTEM
Prior to 1858, probate matters in England and Wales were handled by any one of a hierarchy of over 300 courts, depending on the location of the property of the deceased. To find the court where your ancestor’s will was probated, usually you must find which archdeaconry, diocese, or peculiar jurisdiction was responsible for the parish that your ancestor died in. The archdeaconry held the lowest court, the diocese next, and the archdiocese the highest. Peculiar jurisdictions were those that didn’t follow the usual order.
- If all of the deceased’s property was contained within one archdeaconry, then it should have been probated in that court. This “lowest” court is often referred to as the primary court, but for each court there is a system of superior courts that may also need to be searched. The first superior court is usually the bishop’s (diocesan) court (see next bullet), and then the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC). For the eight counties in the Province of York (Cheshire, Cumberland, Durham, Lancashire, Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Westmoreland, and Yorkshire), check the Prerogative Court of York (PCY) before the PCC. There are MANY additions and exceptions to this overly-simplified order of superior courts, which vary county by county.
- If the deceased had property in more than one archdeaconry but within the same diocese, it would go to the bishop’s court (often called the consistory court or the commissary court).
- If the deceased had property in more than one diocese, it would go to the archbishop’s court (Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) or Prerogative Court of York (PCY)).
- If the deceased had property in both archdioceses, or outside of England and Wales, it would go to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC).
How to find the records
Use the wiki search and type the name of the county your ancestor died in and the word “Probate” in the search field, such as Yorkshire Probate. Click on the link for the article about searching probate records in that county. The article will walk you through finding the appropriate jurisdictions for your parish, finding indexes and probate records online, and finding records through the Family History Library.
1858 to the present
In 1858 probate jurisdiction was switched from the Church of England courts to the Principal Probate Registry, a government system. The wonderful thing about this is there is just ONE yearly index that covers all of England and Wales.
How to find the records
To find these records in the Family History Library Catalog (at http://www.familysearch.org), do a Title search for the following:
- For the index--Calendar of the grants of probate and letters of administration made in the Principal Registry: and in the several district registries of Her Majesty's Court of Probate
- For wills in the Principal registry--Record copy wills, 1858-1925
- For wills in the District registries--Record copy wills from the District Probate Registries, 1858-1899
ESTATE DUTY OR DEATH DUTY REGISTERS
Starting in 1796, there was an inheritance tax payable on any estate with personal property valued more than £20 and real property of £100. In 1812 the minimum was lowered to any property more than £20. Therefore, most people whose estates were probated after 1812 will show up in the Estate Duty registers. The Estate Duty registers record the actual disposition of the property—who received what amounts—for both wills and administrations. Sometimes addresses are recorded, which can help you track down children and missing relatives. Between 1812-1857 the death duty registers provide one index to probates in England and Wales and can point you to the court where your ancestor’s will was probated. A good summary of these records and a useful summary about probates in general can be found at http://www.findmypast.com/helpadvice/knowledge-base/wills-divorces/#duty.
How to find the records
There are two indexes to these records on the Internet:
- From 1796-1811 there is a free index at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/ under Search DocumentsOnline, then Death Duty Registers.
- Images of the original indexes from 1796-1903 are available at http://www.findmypast.com ($) under the births, marriages & deaths tab.
Once you have found your ancestor in the index, the Family History Library has the microfilms of the registers. (The FHL also has the indexes, if that is easier for you to search than online.) Search the FHL Catalog using the author search, and put in Great Britain Estate Duty Office. Several titles will come up. You can figure out which ones to use depending on the date, whether the index was for a will or an administration, and whether it was proven in the PCC or a country court (a country court was any court other than the PCC).
WILL INDEXES ONLINE
Will indexes—pre-1858 will indexes for many counties have been put online. To find these, go to search for the wiki and type the name of your county and the word probate into the search field, such as Yorkshire Probate. Click on the link for the article about searching probate records in that county. The article will walk you through finding the appropriate jurisdictions for your parish, with links to indexes and probate records online. (Those that are not online can usually be accessed through Family History Library books and microfilm.) Some of the sites have not only the index but images of the wills themselves. Some are free and some are not. Some are complete and some are not. Be sure to read any available introductory or explanatory material on the site. New sites are coming online every day. Try using a search engine such as http://www.Google.com to locate them. If you find a new site that is not listed on http://wiki.familysearch.org, please consider contributing it to the Wiki!
- Search for the wills of your ancestor and his or her parents.
- Search for the wills of siblings, in-laws, and other known relatives. (Unmarried siblings often list more family relationships than the average will.)
- Search the indexes of the court of primary jurisdiction for all entries of the surname for 50-100 years after the date of marriage (or birth) of the ancestor you are “stuck” on. Read the wills that come from within 15-20 miles of the last known residence. You may also want to do this for the surname(s) of the in-laws of your ancestor.
- Do a similar but shorter search in all of the superior courts. You may also want to do this for the in-law surnames.
- Consider reading all of the documents for EVERY person from the last known residence, say from the date of birth to 10-20 years beyond the death of the ancestor. Such a search depends greatly on the size of the place and the commonness of the name. (See below.)
Dr. Ronald Hill, in his article “Maximizing Probate Research: An Analysis of Potential, Using English Records from Cornwall” (National Genealogical Society Quarterly, vol. 84, no. 4, (December 1996), 261-274) discusses the above methodologies in much detail. He conducted an even more comprehensive study, reading all of the probate records for thirty-two parishes. He concludes “For every probate case existing for a surname in this study, there are on average two to three relevant other-name probates in the same or adjoining parishes . . . even if no probates are found for a given surname in a parish . . . there are on average two to three other-name probates that mention the family of interest (emphasis in original).”
Steps for an “every probate case in the parish” study:
- Obtain an index to the probate records in the court or county of interest.
- Many indexes have a “place index” as well as the usual index by surname. If you’re working in an online index, just fill in the parish of interest, and leave the rest of the form blank.
- Enter the index data onto a spreadsheet or table of some kind. Create separate columns for surname, given name, place, occupation, date, volume and page, and type of probate document (will, admon, inventory, etc.)
- Sort the spreadsheet by the volume or year so that you can go and copy all of the relevant probates on any given film at once.
- Read (and if you want, photocopy) every will that you found in the index, looking for connections to your family. You may want to have some scrap paper handy to diagram family relationships in each will.
- Dr. Ronald Hill, “Maximizing Probate Research: An Analysis of Potential, Using English Records from Cornwall,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 84 no. 4, (December 1996): 261-274.
- ___________, "Death Duty Records: The Will of Mary Thomas of St. Winnow in Cornwall," National Genealogical Society Quarterly 95 (March 2007): 55-58.
- Adapted from Dr. David Pratt—class syllabus, Brigham Young University