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18 September 2014
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By Dr Nick Barratt
Wills and probate

Will of James Smalley
An 18th-century will 
One of the best ways of gleaning information about family relationships is via an individual's will, which usually contains specific bequests to family members. Before 1858, the executor or executrix would register the will in the relevant ecclesiastical court to obtain a grant of probate, thereby allowing the bequests to be fulfilled. After 1858 a Central Court of Probate was established, where all wills for England and Wales were registered. Nowadays wills are registered at the Principal Probate Registry.

If an individual died without a will, then letters of administration would be granted permitting the heir at law or next of kin to dispose of the estate. Furthermore, from 1796, death duty was payable on the estate, and the registers often detail next of kin, as well as later annotations.

In terms of locating family members, wills are the most important of the sources you are likely to find. In England and Wales you will find separate will registers for the Prerogatives Courts of Canterbury (at The National Archives) and York (at the Borthwick Institute, York) that go up to 1858. Thereafter all English wills have been registered centrally (and copies of wills can be obtained from the Principal Probate Registry, London).

Wills registered in local diocesan courts can be found at the relevant county or diocesan record office. A separate system exists in Scotland, and its records can be found in Edinburgh. Irish wills are mainly kept in Dublin, with copies available in Belfast (although most wills prior to 1914 have been destroyed).

Published: 2004-09-13

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