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Your ancestors’ last wishes can tell you a great deal about how they lived their lives – from their wealth and social standing to the relatives they preferred. But how do you discover your ancestors’ dying requests?
When a person dies, somebody has to deal with their estate by collecting together their money and possessions, paying off any debts, and distributing what’s left. The person who does this is appointed by a court, through a legal process known as probate.
Probate records are the documents involved in this process. Usually, the most important of these records is the will, detailing names, dates, the deceased’s property and who it was left to. Even if the person didn't make a will, there are still other important records produced during the case:
Inventory: A detailed list of all the deceased’s possessions
Letter of administration: The formal document appointing the executor
Before 1858, probate was carried out by around 300 church courts all over the country. In that year, the Court of Probate Act established the Principal Probate Registry, with 40 district registries, to take care of all the cases.
For many years, the Probate Registry summarised all its cases in a series of calendars. We’ve brought the calendars for 1861 to 1941 online to create the single most important collection for tracing your ancestors’ probate records – the National Probate Calendar.
Cases were added to the Calendar whether the deceased left a will or not. So as long as your ancestors passed on any sort of property, you should be able to find them here.
When you do, you’ll discover their names, where and when they died, and who they appointed as their executor. You’ll also see how much their estate was worth – giving you a clear idea of how wealthy your family was throughout history.
Perhaps even more importantly, the Calendar gives you everything you need to order your ancestors’ complete probate records – usually including their will – from the Principal Probate Registry.
To do so, just follow these steps:
1) Search our Calendar using a name plus, if you know it, the date and place of death. You could use our Death Indexes to get an approximate idea of the correct year
2) When you find an ancestor, note down their full name, date of death, and any details of the probate case that are supplied – such as where and when it happened.
3) Download an application form from the Probate Registry. Fill in the details you’ve found and follow the instructions to send it off. Assuming you have the date right the records will cost you £5, and the Registry aims to respond to requests within 21 working days
When you receive the full records, examine them for useful information. Perhaps they mention a particular location, which you can then pinpoint in censuses and county directories? Maybe the possessions suggest a particular occupation? Also look at the names of the beneficiaries and witnesses – these are often other family members.
But what about probate records before 1861? These aren’t arranged in a single national collection like the National Probate Calendar. Instead, they’re kept at a local level, depending on the court that proved the case.
We’re adding more and more of these local records to our site. We already have large collections for London and Dorset, going right back to the 16th century. These include actual copies of your ancestors’ wills and other probate records, so you can see what they left and who to straight away.
We also have several early indexes. The largest of these is Extracted Probate Records, which covers almost 2 million records from all over the UK. Each entry includes a reference, so you know where to look for the full records.