Introduction to New Zealand Wills & Probate Documents
Wills are such a useful source of family history information they should not be ignored. Genealogy researchers especially those new to the hobby often find the subject confusing and stay with civil registration, electoral rolls and parish records, however if you do that you are missing out on a gold mine of information.
The first High Court was first established in New Zealand on 1841 and was known as The Supreme Court of NZ, prior to that date the probate for the estates of New Zealanders were processed in New South Wales, Australia. In 1980 the court was re-named as The High Court of NZ. For the purposes of this article the court will be referred to as the High Court regardless of the time period.
A will is usually probated in the nearest High Court to the usual residence of the deceased., although up until circa 1908 this could be undertaken by former District Courts.
Wills & Probate Documents – What are they?
Wills are documents that set out how an individual wishes to dispose of their property, money and personal belongings after their death. They can be written by the person concerned or by another who has taken instructions from the person. They are signed by the individual in the presence of two independent witnesses. Often these documents are drawn up by solicitors.
Letters of Administration
When a person dies without leaving a will the person charged with disposing of their estate to their next of kin applies to the Court for Letters of Administration. These documents allows the deceased’s belongings to be transferred over to those who have a legal claim on them.
Death Duty Records
The estates of deceased persons may be subject to tax or duty and the documents recording the assessment and payment of these taxes will be included in with either the will or letters of administration. There are also separate ledgers that list all the details of such taxes paid.
Depending on the terms of a will or if an estate is subject to tax an inventory of the goods of a person might be required. These can be interesting to the family historian as they can reflect the social standing and living conditions of the persons concerned.
Wills & Probate Documents – Where can they be found?
Unfortunately New Zealand does not have a national wills & probate index, but most wills and probate documents once they are over 20 years old are deposited with Archive NZ. Each Archives New Zealand regional office does have a computerised Probate Index for most of the probates proved in NZ up until 1920 and later for some courts. Many probate references are to be found on the Archives NZ ARCHWAY database. http://www.archway.archives.govt.nz/Home.do
A useful guide to wills & probate documents can be found at the Archives NZ website. http://archives.govt.nz/research/guides/personal-identity. The webpage also lists the probate holding, where the documents are held and for what time period. If you require a will that is not held by Archives NZ they may be able to advise where it would be held.
Public Trust Wills
If a will was lodged with the Public Trust and the deceased died between 1872 and 1950 then the probate will have be conducted through the High Court in Wellington. The names of those whose estates were administered, with and without wills, by the Public Trust were published in the New Zealand Gazette until the early 1950’s. Copies of The New Zealand Gazette may be found in larger libraries. After 1950 Public Trust wills were processed through the various High Courts the same as non Public Trust wills. The New Zealand Society of Genealogists have published in microfiche form an index to Public Trust estates in Canterbury 1901 – 1958.
If the deceased had only recently emigrated to New Zealand then it may be that their will was made in their country of origin and it is worth looking to see if the estate was probated there.
Maori Wills & Probates
Prior to 1894 the wills of Maori were processed through the High Court, from 1894 to 1967 this task was taken over by the Maori Land Court. In 1967 the Maori Affairs Amendment Act handed the power to grant probate and letter of administration from the Maori Land Court to the High Court.
If the value of an estate was small and the family were in agreement as to how the property was to be allocated then the beneficiaries may decide not to go to the expense of probating the will. In this case the will or copies of the will can only be found amongst family papers. However if the deceased owned land then a copy of a will may have been lodged with transfer documents at the Land Registry. A search of Land Registry papers can be made via The New Zealand Society of Genealogists, this service is for members of the society only or the Land Registry historic archives, now in the care of Archives NZ can be searched via the ARCHWAY search facility. See below for information about an index of wills at the Land registry compiled by members of The New Zealand Society of Genealogists.
Wills & Probate Documents – Online
Probate Records 1878-1960
These records are held at Archives NZ and have been scanned and placed online on the LDS FamilySearch website. it should be noted that these records have not, as yet, been indexed. However a search of the Archives NZ website using the ARCHWAY search facility will give the probate file number associated with a name.
Some records at the beginning of the file sets are often out of numerical order. This collection is being published as images become available The probate records are categorized in order by county, record type, date range, and volume. The earlier probate packets are arranged in three series arranged alphabetically by surname. The more recent records are filed by date.
There is a comprehensive description of these records online and it is recommended that you read this before starting to search these records. https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/New_Zealand_Probate_Records
Wills & Probate Documents – Indexes
All these indexes are published on microfiche and are available for purchase from the New Zealand Society of Genealogists. The fiche can often be found in the Family History section of NZ and some overseas libraries.
Wills at Land Information Office, Wellington.
Approximately 3,200 names covering approximately 1833-1910. The index was taken from original documents housed at Land Information NZ – Wellington Office.
Canterbury Death Duty Registers Index 1867-1914
Contains 11,000 entries of Death Duties paid on estates in Christchurch area. The index gives name, locality, occupation, date of death, and volume & page number for each person.
Deceased Persons Estates, Canterbury 1887-1914
This information was compiled from lists published in the Mercantile Gazette 1887-1914. There are three lists: (1) Estates of Canterbury people 1887-1897, (2) Abstracts of Wills of Canterbury people 1887-1890, (3) Details of estates of Canterbury people 1898-1914 but gives dates for one of the following – death, certification , claim to estate, probate granted, probate files with the Public Trust.
Public Trust Deceased Estates, Canterbury 1901-1958
This index continues deceased estates from the New Zealand Gazette but for the Canterbury area only.
NZ Probates: Volume One – An Index to Pre-1900 Records
An index to 30,000 wills probated in New Zealand and held in National Archives. Each entry includes; name, place, occupation ,death date, filed date, type, courthouse, and probate number.
Archway Search Facility
Family Search Probate Records 1878-1960
New Zealand Society of Genealogists