Friday, September 11, 2009


Presented by Evva Benson, AG, and updated by Dae Powell

In England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, probate records are one of the best sources of direct (and indirect) information about your ancestors prior to civil registration and census records. Probate records supplement and may even pre-date parish registers. This presentation focuses on English and Welsh probate records. The strategies may be applied more broadly.

What is a Probate and how can it help me?

A probate record was typically either a will or an administration. A will was probated when it was taken and “proven” to be valid in a court of probate after the death of the testator. In the case of someone who died without leaving a will (intestate), the next of kin or a creditor would apply to the court for a letter of administration granting them the right to administer the estate of the deceased in accordance with inheritance laws.
You may think only rich people left wills, but that is not the case. People such as butchers, shoemakers, husbandman, and even laborers left wills. In 16th- and 17th-century England and Wales, it has been estimated that as many as 25% of males left wills. Widows and “spinsters” also left wills. By the 19th century this percentage is lower, between 5-10%. It is encouraging to remember that even more people are mentioned WITHIN wills than ever left wills.

Wills can help you directly and indirectly. Perhaps you will find the will of your ancestor who names his wife, all of his children, their spouses, and their children. This will give you direct proof of kinship. You may find a will that disproves a questioned link. For those who are patient, wills are a goldmine of indirect evidence that can circumvent brick walls. Thanks to the Internet, doing a probate search is becoming easier every day. Thanks to the Family History Library, 90-95% of English and Welsh probate records have been filmed and are available through family history centers.

Definitions of probate terms

• Will – The document expressing the wishes of the testator as to the disposition of his/her property after their decease. Technically, real property (land) was devised by a will and personal (moveable) property was bequeathed in a testament. The two together were the “will and testament” shortened to will.

• Testator/Testatrix: The person who made a will.
• Intestate: A person who died without a making a will.
• Executor/Executrix: The person named in a will by a testator who is authorized to administer the terms of the will.
• Codicil: An addition to a will made after the first will was written and signed.
• Administration (Admon): A grant to the next-of-kin (or another) who applied to administer the property of the intestate.
• Act Book: The court’s day-by-day account of the official grants of probate proceedings.
• Inventory: A list of the deceased’s personal and household goods, with their appraised value.

Probate jurisdictions

Prior to 1858, probate matters in England and Wales were handled by any one of over 300 courts, depending on the location of the property of the deceased. Finding the court the ancestor’s will was probated in is usually a matter of discovering in what archdeaconry, diocese, or peculiar jurisdiction the parish they lived in was located.
• If all of the deceased’s property was contained within one archdeaconry, then it would have been probated in that court. This “lowest” court is often referred to as the court of original jurisdiction, but for each court there is a system of superior courts that may also need to be searched. The first superior court is usually the bishop’s (diocesan) court (see next bullet), and then the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC). For the eight counties in the Province of York (Cheshire, Cumberland, Durham, Lancashire, Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Westmoreland, and Yorkshire), check the Prerogative Court of York (PCY) before the PCC. There are MANY additions and exceptions to this overly-simplified order of superior courts, which vary county by county.
• If the deceased had property in more than one archdeaconry but within the same diocese, it would go to the bishop’s court (often called the consistory court or the commissary court).
• If the deceased had property in more than one diocese, it would go to the archbishop’s court (Prerogative Court of Canterbury [PCC] or Prerogative Court of York [PCY]).
• If the deceased had property in both archdioceses, or outside of England and Wales, it
would go to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC).

How to find the records

At the time of this writing, there isn’t a complete online reference source for determining the court of original jurisdiction and superior courts for each parish yet. The Web site has guides for Essex and London.

More guides will be coming on FamilySearch or in the future.
In the meantime, refer to the probate handlists that are on FHL microfiche, go to
to find the fiche number appropriate to your county.
Also, you can do a “Place” search in the FHLC for your county and then look under the topics “Probate Records” and “Probate Records—Indexes.”

The author will be “Church of England. Archdeaconry Court of
___________” or “Church of England. Consistory Court of ______________” etc.

Choose the author that best fits the level of jurisdiction you are searching.

1858 to the present

In 1858 probate jurisdiction was switched from the Church of England courts to the Principal
Probate Registry, a government system. The wonderful thing about this is there is just ONE yearly index that covers all of England and Wales.

How to find the records

To find these records in the Family History Library Catalog (at do a “Title” search for the following:

• For the index – Calendar of the grants of probate and letters of administration made in the
Principal Registry : and in the several district registries of Her Majesty's Court of Probate.
• For wills in the Principal registry – Record copy wills, 1858-1925.
• For wills in the District registries – Record copy wills from the District Probate Registries, 1858-1899.

Estate duty/death duty registers

Starting in 1796 there was an inheritance tax payable on any estate with personal property valued
more than £20 and real property of £100. In 1812 the minimum was lowered to any property more than £20, therefore most people whose estates were probated after 1812 will show up in the Estate Duty registers. The Estate Duty registers record the actual disposition of the property—who received what amounts—for both wills and administrations. Sometimes addresses are recorded which can help you track down children and missing relatives. Between 1812-1857 these provide one index to probates in England and Wales and can point you to the court where your ancestor’s will was probated.

A good summary of these records and a useful summary about probates in general can be found at

How to find the records

There are two indexes to these records on the Internet:
• From 1796-1811 there is a free index at under “Search DocumentsOnline” then “Death Duty Registers.”
• Images of the original indexes from 1796-1903 are available at ($) under the “births, marriages & deaths” tab.

Once you have found your ancestor in the index, the Family History Library has the microfilms of
the registers (The FHL also has the indexes, if that is easier for you to search than online.).

Search the FHL Catalog using the “author” search and put in Great Britain Estate Duty Office. Several titles will come up. You can figure out which ones to use depending upon the date, whether the index was for a will or an administration, and whether it was proven in the PCC or a country court (a country court was any court other than the PCC).

Will indices online

Will indices—pre-1858 will indexes for many counties have been put online. Some of these sites
have not only the index but images of the wills themselves. Some are free and some are not. Some
are complete and some are not. Be sure to read any available introductory or explanatory material on the site. There are more sites than these, try using a search engine such as to locate them.

• Berkshire (the database is for Wiltshire but has over 11,000 Berkshire people)
• Buckinghamshire
• Cambridgeshire (small index)
• Cheshire
• Cornwall (1690-1859, small index)
• Cumberland (1748-1858); (small)
• Derbyshire; (1858-1928);
• Devonshire (the database is for Wiltshire, but has over 1,000 Devonshire people); (guide to Devonshire wills)
• Dorset (the database is for Wiltshire but has over 10,000 Devonshire people)
• Durham (coming in 2009)
• Essex (small—enter as a “guest”)
• Gloucestershire—county
• Gloucester-Bristol (1791-1858)
• Hampshire; (the database is for Wiltshire
but has over 900 Hampshire people)
• Herefordshire (index to 42,000 wills not available online but rather by contacting the
individual whose name is found on this page); (small)
• Kent
• Lancashire; (Lancashire north of the river
Ribble 1748-1858)
• Lincolnshire (1701-1800)
• London/Middlesex; (Consistory
Court of London 1621-1630);
(Consistory Court of London 1629-1634); (Archdeaconry Court of London
• Norfolk (1800-1857)
• Northamptonshire and Rutland
• Northumberland (coming in 2009)
• Prerogative Court of Canterbury
Click on “Search Documents Online” then “Wills”
• Suffolk (1847-1857);
• Surrey;
• Sussex
• Westmoreland (1748-1858)
• Wiltshire
• Yorkshire (Prerogative & Exchequer Courts of York Probate Index 1853-1858); (small part only 1748-
1858); (small)
Search.tcl; (York Peculiars Probate Index 1383-1883)


1. Search for the wills of your ancestor and his/her parents.
2. Search for the wills of siblings, in-laws, and other known relatives. (Unmarried siblings
often list more family relationships than the average will.)
3. Search the indexes of the court of original jurisdiction for all entries of the surname over
50-100 years from the date of marriage (or birth) of the earliest ancestor. Read the wills that
come from within 15-20 miles of the last known residence. You may also wish to do this
for the surname(s) of the in-laws of your ancestor.
4. Do a similar but shorter search in all of the superior courts. You may also wish to do this
for the in-law surnames.
5. Consider reading all of the documents for EVERY person from the last known residence,
say from the date of birth to 10-20 years beyond the death of the ancestor. Such a search
depends greatly on the size of the place and the commonness of the name. (See below)
(Adapted from Dr. David Pratt—class syllabus, Brigham Young University)
Dr. Ronald Hill, in his article “Maximizing Probate Research: An Analysis of Potential, Using
English Records from Cornwall” (National Genealogical Society Quarterly, vol. 84, no. 4,
(December 1996), 261-274) discusses the above methodologies in much detail. He conducted an
even more comprehensive study, reading all of the probate records for thirty-two parishes. He

"For every probate case existing for a surname in this study, there are on average two to
three relevant other-name probates in the same or adjoining parishes. . . even if no
probates are found for a given surname in a parish. . . there are on average two to three
other-name probates that mention the family of interest." (emphasis in original)

Steps for an “every probate case in the parish” study:

1. Obtain an index to the probate records in the court or county of interest.
2. Most indexes have a “place index” as well as the usual index by surname. If you're working
in an online index just fill in the parish of interest and leave the rest of the form blank.
3. Enter the index data onto a spreadsheet or table of some kind. Create separate columns for
surname, given name, place, occupation, date, volume and page, and type of probate
document (will, admon, inventory, etc.)
4. Sort the spreadsheet by the volume or year so that you can go and copy all of the relevant
probates on any given film at once.
5. Read (and if you wish photocopy) every will that you found in the index, looking for
connections to your family. You may wish to have some scrap paper handy to diagram
family relationships in each will

Suggested reading

• Dr. Ronald Hill, “Maximizing Probate Research: An Analysis of Potential, Using English
Records from Cornwall,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 84 no. 4, (December
1996): 261-274.
• ____________, “Death Duty Records: The Will of Mary Thomas of St. Winnow in
Cornwall,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 95 (March 2007): 55-58.

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Blogger Patricia said...

Thank you, Hugh, for laying out a sensible strategy. Researching old English probate records from the US can be daunting, but you've laid it out nicely step by step. (It'll still be time-consuming, of course! :-) )


10:57 pm  

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