Wills, probate and family history

Wills, probate and family history

08 May 2018 Gail Donaldson

Last month I had the pleasure of speaking to the Buckingham U3A Family History Group.

My topic was Wills and Probate, but in considering what to talk about I was very aware that genealogists and family historians are looking at old Wills and Probates differently from solicitors. In particular they are using them to seek out clues about their ancestors whereas of course solicitors are using them as a means of legally transferring assets after someone has died.

It struck me how the modern Will writer probably does not really help the genealogist – when drawing up Wills today we often use generic terms like “children” and “issue” rather than naming all the individuals which would be very helpful for historians in confirming that they have identified all of the relatives who would fall into that category. We also tend not to list all an individual’s assets. Fortunately modern record-keeping and social media will more than make up for this and family historians of the future will have lots of resources available to them which simply were not available in the past.

Many people are not aware that if a Will is admitted to Probate after someone dies then this is a public record and anyone can obtain a copy of the Will online for a modest cost – these records can be found at www.gov.uk/search-will-probate The government’s Will records actually extend back to 1858 and so there is a lot of information out there for the historian!

I also spoke to the group about the information that is available on the face of a Grant of Probate – and just as importantly what you should and should not read into this. When applying for a Grant of Probate generally the value of assets owned jointly with someone else is not included. We often see articles in newspapers expressing surprise that a famous celebrity has died and “only” left an estate of a particular value. In fact if the celebrity in question owned many of the assets jointly – normally with a husband or wife – then these would not be included and so the Grant of Probate is not a true indication of a person’s wealth.

All in all it was a very enjoyable meeting and I hope the group were able to take something from it that might help their future research.