Did your ancestor leave a will? This is always a very interesting question and the process of finding out is easy to do online. I am sure we all have family legends saying that great grandfather would have been a millionaire if only he hadn’t been cheated out of his rightful inheritance. I have heard this story so many times from students and sometimes it is this very story that got them interested in their family history. I have to warn you though that I have never heard of someone finding out that the tale is true!
At one time to consult the National Probate Index, which covers wills proved after 1858 when the government took the task from the Church of England, you needed to visit a probate office, archive or society like The Society of Genealogists in London. I have spent days there working my way through the micro-fiche looking for my family names. It was tedious to say the very least and lots of breaks for cups of tea and chocolate biscuits just about kept me focused on the task. Now, I am very pleased to say, answering the genealogy question “did your ancestor leave a will?” is just a case of logging in to Ancestry and there it all is at your finger tips – chocolate biscuits are still a requirement however!
Did your ancestor leave a will? – about the records
It is vital when using records for family history to know why the data was collected so you have an understanding of what you are looking at and what you can expect to find.
In January 1858 the Principal Probate Registry was established in London and a number of District Probate Registry Offices were set up around the country to deal with grants of probate and letters of administration in their areas. The district offices then sent the paperwork up to the London head office where the indexes were created and this still happens to this day. The indexes that we can search online on Ancestry are for two time periods 1858-1966 and 1973-1995. I can find no reason on Ancestry why there is a gap of six years, but it may be that they are working on creating the indexes and the gap will be filled in the future.
The index is sometimes referred to as a calendar and contains a summary of information taken from the wills or if no will was left by the deceased then from the administration paperwork. The index consists of a volume for each year and the names of the deceased are arranged alphabetically by surname, then first names. An important point to keep in mind is that the year in which the deceases estate is recorded is the year that it was probated and this can be several years after the death. I have come across instances where the probate paperwork wasn’t completed until ten years or more after the death, but the index very handily has the date of death in the summary.
Also remember that if the deceased had little of value to leave then it is unlikely that an entry will be found as probate would not be sought by the family. However if money, however little, was kept in bank or post office accounts, property or valuable goods were owned then probate would be needed to release money from accounts, sell property or dispose of goods.
Before you start your searches you might like to print off a free Probate Index Worksheet from the MadAboutGenealogy Resource Library. This will help you keep track of who you have searched for and what you have found.
Did your ancestor leave a will? – what you will find and how to find it
The amount of information you find in the index varies according to what was deemed important to include, but the minimum you will find is as below, but often you will get much more.
- Probate date
- Full name of the deceased
- Death date & place
- Registry where issued
Here is an example.
Grist, Ann (formerly Diddams). 13 September 1865. Letters of administration of the personal estate and effects of Ann Grist (wife of William Grist) (formerly Diddams, spinster) late of Sutton Scotney in the county of Southampton deceased who died 18 July 1865 at Sutton Scotney aforesaid were granted at Winchester to the said William Grist of Sutton Scotney aforesaid, baker & grocer he having been first sworn. Effects under £100.
So from this entry we find that Ann Diddams married William Grist, that she owned something of value, without the will we don’t know exactly what, that her estate was worth under £100, but what ever it was it needed the probate documents to transfer ownership to her husband. As the Married Women’s Property Act didn’t come into force until 1882 we could assume that it was something she had owned before her marriage, but we would need the will to confirm this.
We know that Ann didn’t leave a will so was her death unexpected? We have a death date and place for her and we know her husband was a baker and grocer in Sutton Scotney. This information leads us to a number of records that we could further look at
- Death certificate
- Burial register
- Newspaper report
- Marriage certificate
- William Grist’s entry in the Probate Index
- Wills for parents and siblings of Ann to see if they left an estate, part of which might have come to Ann
Searching the National Probate Index on Ancestry to find out did your ancestor leave a will is very easy. I’ll walk you through the process.
- Log onto Ancestry and click to go to the Card Catalogue.
- Enter National Probate Index in the Card Catalogue Title Search Box and click Search.
- The item you want is called England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations, 1858 – 1966, 1973 – 1995.
- Click on the item and you will be given a search form to fill in.
- Enter the name in the appropriate box. Remember less is more in genealogy searches so don’t fill in all the boxes. Only fill in the name of your ancestor and year of death if known. If you want to look at all entries for a surname that isn’t too common then simply enter the last name. Click on Search.
- You will then see a list of names and you can work your way through them to find the entry you want.
- Click on View Record to look at an individual entry. You may need to move the page up or down to find the person you are seeking.
Did your ancestor leave a will? – summary
A copy of a will or administration can be purchased from the Principal Probate Registry online (Click Here to Order) and delivered to your email address. They cost £10 each and you will need the information provided by the index. Searches can be done online on the government website, but I have found that they can be quite lengthy and not all that accurate. For instance when I tried to order Ann Grist’s will I was given 10 pages of indexes to work through and not one contained Ann’s entry. As I had all the details I was able to enter those and purchase her will straight away.
If you are seeking details for a person whose estate may have been processed in the missing Ancestry years of 1967 – 1972 then you could use the index provided by the Registry, however I would note on your file that this search is far from satisfactory.
Even if you don’t purchase a will the Probate Index entry gives you plenty of information to add to your family history and often it is enough. I always search the index for all my ancestors and whilst I wouldn’t buy a death certificate for siblings of my direct line ancestors the National Probate Index is a much cheaper option of finding out death dates and other details. Certificates cost £9.25/$15 each and when you take into account that an Ancestry six month membership only costs $99 which is the equivalent of 7 certificates I think my Ancestry account more than pays for itself!
So did your ancestor leave a will? Go and take a look at the National Probate Index and I can almost guarantee you will find several of your ancestors did just that. I love the National Probate Index and I am sure you will too. To have it available for searching online from home is absolute genealogy bliss!
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