Good Will Hunting

By Karen Foy

There’s a genealogical saying which goes ‘you must always remember to kill off your ancestors’. Quite harsh you may think… but what this really means is that you cannot fully prove a direct line of descent until you’ve checked that every individual has led their lives and not died in infancy making it impossible for them to have children of their own later on. It may be clichéd but you must complete the ‘circle of life’ and follow each ancestor’s story all the way through to the end.

So…discovering that an ancestor has left a will is a real help to the family historian and a great way of increasing your knowledge about your forebears and their relationships with their siblings and offspring.

Old Will Picture

Old wills and probate documents will help trace your family tree in England and Scotland

A will is a written document detailing how a person wishes to dispose of their property and rights after death. It can reveal family links and details of personal possessions, and expose who was in or out of favour at a particular time by the kind of ‘goods and chattels’ which were bequeathed. By using the knowledge you’ve already found during your research you can even work out other family specifics such as who was married to whom, whether spouses, siblings or children had already died and even if new grandchildren had been added to the family.

From the 14th century up until the 10th January 1858, the proving of wills was under the jurisdiction of the Church so can be found deposited in a number of locations. Enquire at the County Record Office closest to where your ancestor lived and died but also try when searching a wider area. Similarly, the National Archives of Ireland and Scotland should be able to help you, whilst holds many Scottish wills from 1513 – 1901.

From the 11th January 1858 onwards, the Probate Act made the proving of wills a civil matter and across the country a Probate Court and registries were established. You can obtain these from the Principle Probate Registry in London or one of its subsidiaries.

The website enables you to search wills proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and allows you to view the original will online. The current coverage goes back to 1600 but will eventually cover 1384-1858.

Top Tips:
• Bear in mind that very few women before the late 19th century left a will as their property and possessions would automatically pass to their husband. The discovery of their will may point to the fact that they were widowed, childless or that their offspring had predeceased them.
• Before the Second World War about only 10% of the population left a will so if you’re lucky enough to find one relating to your family members then you may be able to uncover some unique data which is not recorded anywhere else.

Interested in finding out more? Why not try Family History for Beginners published by The History Press.

Karen Foy is a freelance writer and author of two books Family History for Beginners (2011) and Ancestors in the Attic (2012) both published by The History Press. Why not visit her blog at

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