Wills & AdministrationsA will is a formal document which legally sets out what an individual wants to happen to their property and possessions after their death. Wills were almost always left by the rich, the famous, and professional businessmen, but many "ordinary" people including farmers, shopkeepers and laborers made out a will too. Wills are a good source of genealogical information because they are created with the intent of listing and confirming family relationships. Relatives of individuals who died intestate (without a will), could apply for a grant of administration to deal with the assets and belongings of the estate.
After someone died, the will had to be "proved" in court in a process called "probate." The courts which oversaw wills and administrations in England and Wales fall into two time periods: before and after 11 January 1858.
- Before 11 January 1858
From the 14th century until 11 January 1858 the proving of wills came under the jurisdiction of the Church, and wills from this time are found among the records of the ecclesiastical courts. The most important of these courts, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, administered the wills of primarily wealthy people living mainly in southern England and most of Wales. The complete collection of PCC Wills are available online from the National Archives - searches are free and digital images of the wills are available on a pay-per-document basis. The Prerogative Court of York was the other major provincial court, and those records are held by the Borthwick Institute of the University of York. Since these prerogative courts dealt primarily with wills of relatively wealthy individuals, most people are more likely to find the will of an ancestor among the records of the minor Probate Courts, which may be deposited in the county record office or other local repository. The National Library of Wales holds the original Welsh wills and probates up to 1858.
- After 11 January 1858 On the 12 January 1858, wills and probates became a civil matter in England under the Probate Act of 1857.