UK Research Guide | England & Wales Probates and wills
For family historians, wills and other probate documents are invaluable. Even if you believe the deceased left nothing valuable, you should check for the existence of a will.
From 1858 onwards, the method for locating a Will in England and Wales is relatively straightforward, however, prior to this, the probate court system presents greater difficulties. Due to limited access to parish registers and other records before civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths, probate documents can be an invaluable resource. As a result, it is important to understand the probate process in order to access this potentially valuable family history resource.
Wills and Probate records are legally binding documents, therefore they are more trustworthy than census enumeration records or other sources.
A Will describes how a person’s personal possessions and property should be dispersed after their death. A will may also include the names of family members, acquaintances, or other connections. Wills can reveal an ancestor’s preferences, biases, loyalties, and affection for others. They can also include details about the deceased’s age, health, and where they should be buried. Wills can offer you an increased appreciation of your ancestor, not only in a financial sense but also socially, providing you with valuable information and helping you to confirm family relationships.
When there was no will and permission was needed to administer the estate, a Letter of Administration (‘Admon’) was granted. The court or registry appointed an administrator, who was frequently a family member or sometimes a creditor. Admons often offer only a few pieces of information, such as the administrator’s name, address, and occupation. However, Admons may contain information on multiple members of a family in some circumstances, therefore it’s a good idea to acquire a copy.
In the eighteenth century and earlier, executors often compiled inventories of the deceased’s property. They can shed light on the deceased’s family, interests, and worth.
Often Probate was not granted immediately following a person’s death but might take as much as ten or twenty years. The records should therefore be searched for several years after a person’s death.
Before 1858, the Church was the sole authority for all matters in probate, which was administered by a hierarchy of ecclesiastical probate courts. There were over 300 probate courts arranged in a hierarchy of jurisdiction and importance. When the testator owned property that was under the jurisdiction of two or more lower courts, the higher court had jurisdiction. The court with primary jurisdiction usually handled the probate, but status, wealth, and convenience may have affected the choice. The hierarchy of jurisdictions was:
Peculiar Courts: In early England, Peculiar Courts and Manor Courts governed over small areas (sometimes only one parish). The majority of England was not under Peculiar Court jurisdiction.
Archdeaconry Courts: Most dioceses were divided into archdeaconries and used Archdeaconry Courts for probate proceedings, except for the Diocese of York, which was divided into rural deaneries.
Bishops’ Courts: Also called Episcopal, Commissary, Diocesan, or Consistory Courts – Bishops’ courts were the highest court within each diocese. The Court of the Dean and Chapter Court or Court of the Cathedral often acted on behalf of the Bishop. The records for these cases are filed with the records of their own courts.
Prerogative Courts: When the deceased’s property was located in more than one diocese, the Prerogative Courts of York and Canterbury had jurisdiction. The Prerogative Court of Canterbury was the highest court and was used to deal with inheritance matters of people who died or owned property outside of England, foreigners who owned property in England, military personnel, and people with property in more than one jurisdiction. It was also often used by wealthy people.
When a judgment of a court was disputed, additional records can be found among later records of that court or those of a higher court.
Courts of Appeal: There were three general Courts of Appeal. The Prerogative Court of Canterbury appealed to the Court of Arches (of Canterbury). The Chancery Court of the Archbishop of York heard appeals from the Prerogative Court of York, which determined whether to appeal to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. Until 1533, all final appeals from all courts were addressed to the Pope, and then to the Court of Delegates until 1831. After 1831, final appeals were brought before the Privy Council.
From 11 January 1858, civil probate registries became responsible for all probate matters throughout England and Wales. Established in major cities and large towns, these institutions were empowered to grant probate regardless of how the deceased had disposed of their assets. During the time of the transition, any probates that were ongoing were handed over to the new bodies, while the ecclesiastical probate courts ceased operations. Finding a Will or Admon within this system is considerably simpler than its predecessor as there is a single consolidated national index for probates granted by all the registries.
Pictured: Of the East Riding or Wolds Waggon, The Costume of Yorkshire (1814), George Walker (1781-1856)