- Wills proved after 1858 were handled by the Principal Probate Registry and copies may be ordered from their website for a small fee. The indexes are known as the National Probate Calendar which is available online for the period 1858-1966 at Ancestry or on microfiche at various other record offices.
- Wills proved after 1384 and before 1858 probably not longer exist in the original form but copies of the “proved” wills are to be found in church records.
- If the deceased left over £5 and lived in southern England the records were proved in the Archbishop's Prerogative Court of Canterbury, in Kent. They have been indexed by The National Archives and over 1 million wills are now available online via their website.
- If the deceased left over £5 and lived in northern England the wills were proved at York and the records are to be found there.
- If the deceased left under £5, wills would have been proved in one of over 250 Archdeacon's or Bishop's courts. The records would be held in the local records office of the relevant county.
- The family of people who died intestate, i.e. with no formal will although there was property or money to dispose of were able to apply for “Letters of Administration”. These have been included from 1858 onwards with the Probate Service records.
- Don't forget that people often made wills many years before they died, and there may have been a considerable delay between the proving of the will and the persons death. This is generally a year or two but can be much longer if the estate was complex or the will contested.
- You may be able to find what estate person left indirectly via the Death Duty registers which have been indexed at The National Archives for the period 1796 to 1858. The registers are online at TNA for the period 1796-1811 covering personal estates valued at over £20. The indexes are online for the period 1796-1903 at Find My Past.
- Most wills are just a page or two in length unless the person was very wealthy.
- Very early wills are written in Latin but from the 1733 onwards were generally written in English. The wording often followed a standard template with set phrases, especially at the start and end of the document, so some parts can be ignored.
- Wills are important because they show the relationship between individuals in an often extended family, as well indicating the wealth and status of the people who died.
- Special terminology is used throughout wills, particularly early wills that needs to be referenced in a genealogical dictionary. For example property may the described as “messuages”, a dwelling house and its appurtenances, “appurtenances” are the outbuildings, garden and in some cases land.
- The lettering in wills can be difficult to read unless you have practised reading old handwriting styles, and gets progressively more difficult as the wills get older. There are various techniques to help to read the text including using the surrounding letters to make out one individual letter, and using surrounding words to interpret an unusual word. There are nowadays web sites devoted to showing writing styles of individual letters in ancient scripts and giving the text of complete pages from the 1400's onwards, e.g. Scriptorium.