Introduction to Wills

Findmypast has a vast selection of probate records to explore and discover your ancestors. Wills are a fantastic resource for the family historian. A will is a formal record of a person’s wishes for the distribution of his or her property after death.

However, before the executors can act, the will must be “proved” and the executors formally given authority to proceed. Original wills, signed by the testator, survive only rarely, and the documents that genealogists use are the official copies made during the process of probate and are public records.

While not as personal as letters, wills can reveal much more about the personal lives and relationships of our ancestors than most official documents.

You might assume that a particular ancestor may not have been wealthy enough to leave a will, but in fact anyone who had some capital or who owned even a small piece of land might well decide it was worth spelling out who should inherit what. In any case, even if an ancestor was too poor to leave a will, he or she might have been recipient of a bequest from a wealthier relation.

It is worth looking for the wills not just of ancestors but of anyone in the wider family who may have made a bequest to an ancestor.


Some information for this article was provided by Peter Christian, MA, FSG.

Glossary of Probate Terms

AccountAcc, AccntAn account prepared by the executor or administrator of an estate.
Act BookAct, ABRecords the actions of court, essentially a summary of what went on. Outline details of the grant of probate, including name of testator, date of probate, executor name(s), value of estate.
ad colligendum bonaad colligendIf there is no executor or administrator for a person's estate - perhaps because of a dispute over the validity of the will - the court may appoint a person to collect the goods of the deceased and keep them in safe custody until an administrator can be appointed.
AdministrationA, Ad, Am, Adm, AdmonIf a person died without leaving a will (intestate), someone (usually a relative) could apply to the probate court for a grant of administration, which would allow them to deal with the estate. Also called Letters of Administration
Administration (with will annexed) If the named executors died or refused to act, or if no executors had been named, then Letters of Administration were granted to someone, usually next of kin. So, not a normal probate grant, but not a normal Administration either because there was a will.
AffidavitAff, Affd, AffdtAlso known as a deposition (qv.)
AppraisalAppraisValuation of goods at death, sometimes previous to drawing up an inventory, sometimes as part of it.
Archdeaconry, Archdeacons Court Normally the lowest of the ecclesiastical courts with testamentary jurisdiction.
Beneficiary Person entitled to benefit from a will.
Bona Notabilia 'Noteworthy goods'. Refers to the requirement of the Prerogative courts that only estates valued at £5 or more in more than one diocese should come within their jurisdiction. Except in London, where it was £10.
Bond(s)B, Bd, Bs, BdsA signed and witnessed obligation, the conditions of which might include the proving of a will, administration of an intestate’s estate, rendering an account or inventory, or guardianship of a minor.
Calendar Usually a contemporary created index, arranged chronological within first letter of the surname of the testator or testrix.
Caveat A warning notice that a will is to be disputed. Used to prevent the grant of probate or of administration without notice being given to the caveator – the person entering the caveat.
Certificate of Bona Notabilia See Bona Notabilia
Citation mandate A legal document requiring someone to do something or appear before the probate court. Announces the date of a visitation of the archdeacon or his official. A court of visitation was a means of governing the parishes under his jurisdiction. (See Borthwick Institute publication, The Archdeacon and Ecclesiastical Discipline in Yorkshire 1598-1714: Clergy and the Churchwardens, John Addy, 1963)
Codicil(s)C, Codl, Cod'l, CodlsAn amendment to a will.
CommissionCom, CommAn order by a court for carrying out some task, eg: "To examine witnesses"; "To collect goods" (eg com. ad colligend.); "To make an inventory of goods".
Commissary Court A court acting with delegated powers from the bishop, normally as a consistory court but in one archdeaconry only – in contrast to an archdeacon’s court, which was subject to the archdeacon.
Commission to swear A commission to a person to swear executors or administrators.
Common Form The procedure for making a grant of probate and other business.
Consistory Court The bishop’s ecclesiastical court, with superior jurisdiction to an archdeaconry court. In theory wills of testators with property in two archdeaconries within the same diocese would be proved in this court, plus those of the clergy.
Copyhold A form of land tenure for tenants of manorial lands.
CurationC, Cur, CuronGuardianship over minors under 21 but over 14 for boys or 12 for girls. The guardian was chosen by the minor.
Dean (and Chapter) Clergy who were members of a cathedral chapter, often with peculiar jurisdiction over parishes in the patronage of that cathedral.
DeclarationD, Dec, DeclA declaration in lieu of an inventory. Produced instead of an inventory, giving the approximate value of the estate.
Deed of Gift Among medieval deeds the most common form of document for the permanent transfer of ownership of property from one individual to another was the Deed of Gift. The word 'gift' is in this usage a term that was used in contrast to 'grant'. Grants applied to things like tithes or goods. For a good description, and examples, refer toOld Title Deeds by N.W. Alcock.
Deposition (of witness)Dep, Dep of WA testimony under oath as to the veracity of a will and the circumstances in which it was made.
Diocese The district over which a bishop has authority.
Donation of goods A deed of gift enrolled in a probate register.
Ecclesiastical or Church Courts Church Courts, one of whose duties was to process probate prior to 1858.
ExecutorExorA man appointed by the Testator/Testatrix to ensure that the provisions of a will are carried out.
Executrix A woman appointed by the Testator/Testatrix to ensure that the provisions of a will are carried out.
Folio Two to sixteen pages make up a folio, depending on how many times a sheet was folded to make the clusters of pages. As a result, a folio number may appear on every other page, or every 16th page, or something in between. Sometimes the term quire is used.
(Genuine) Will For probate to be granted, the will must be tested (proved) as genuine before the church courts.
Grant Every will had an accompanying grant of probate, denoting approval by the probate court of the application of the executor to administer the estate of the deceased.
Indemnity (Bond)Indemnity BA form of bond agreeing to make good any losses suffered.
Inhibition The period during the visitation of a bishop to an archdeaconry when the archdeacon’s court would be closed and probate business conducted in the consistory court.
Intestate A person dying without making a will. See Administration.
InventoryI, In, Inv, InvtA list of the testator's property.
Jurisdiction The area over which a court claimed the right to grant probate or letters of administration. Peculiars within this area would be exempt from the jurisdiction of the court concerned.
Letters of administration See Administration.
Mandate An order to appear before a probate court.
MemorandumMemoVarious documents could be described as a memorandum, including nuncupative wills and documents concerning the distribution of the deceased's property.
New Style(N.S.)This refers to dates expressed according to the Gregorian Calendar that was used in England and Wales after 1752. To effect the change from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar, 1 January 1751 (Old Style) was declared to be the first day of 1752 and 11 days were removed. September 2nd was followed by September 14th, 1752.
Nuncupative willNuncA will made orally because the testator was incapable of signing (usually on his/her deathbed), but written down after the testator's death and sworn to by witnesses
Old Style(O.S.)This refers to dates expressed according to the calendar that was used in England and Wales up until 1752. It was the Julian Calendar: the first day of the year was March 25th and it was considerably out of kilter with the lunar calendar. To effect the change, 1 January 1751 (O.S.) was declared to be the first day of 1752 and 11 days were removed. September 2nd was followed by September 14th, 1752.
Original Will The probate process began by presenting the will to the appropriate probate court by the executors. The court then recorded a probate act authorizing the executors to carry out the provisions of the will. The original will was then endorsed and filed in the court's records, a handwritten copy being given to the executors.
Peculiar Certain parishes, manors and liberties were exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishop and archdeacon in whose diocese and archdeaconry they were situated. They were subject to the probate jurisdiction of others, such as an archbishop, another bishop, dean and chapter of a cathedral or lord of the manor. Most peculiar jurisdictions were abolished in the late 1840s.
Prebend A type of ecclesiastical peculiar.
Prerogative Court See: Province.
Probate Probate is the evidence that the will has been accepted and that the executor(s) may proceed to act on the provisions of the will.
Probate Account A Probate account was prepared by the executor or administrator of an estate and supplements the information found in inventories (where they survive). It should account for all the goods and debts received and all the debts and legacies paid and expenses incurred during the winding up of the deceased’s estate, recording a final balance.
Probate ActPro Act, Prob ActThe record of probate.
Probate bondB., Bd., PB, Prob BA bond was required by a probate court from the executor or administrator to ensure that the duties were carried out properly.
Promissary NoteProm, Prom NotePromise of future payment either by or to a testator; could be considered part of his estate.
Proved Before executors can act, the will must be 'proved', that is officially established as genuine, and the executors formally given authority to proceed.
Province The diocese over which an archbishop has authority. In England prior to 1858 this consisted of Canterbury (southern) and York (northern). The 'Prerogative Courts' of the archbishops had superior jurisdiction to all others, with Canterbury (Prerogative Court of Canterbury) being superior to York (Prerogative Court of York).
Quire See Folio.
Quitrent A rent paid annually at a fixed rate by a freeman in lieu of the services required by feudal custom. A practice from the middle ages.
Registered copy willReg willA Registered copy will is a transcription of the will made at the time of probate and filed and bound into a large volume. The survival rate of registered copy wills is far greater than the original wills.
RenunciationRen, Renun, RenuncA document from one or more of the executors, or prospective administrators, renouncing their executorship or right to administer.
Schedule of EstateSch, SchedList of property and goods - a form of inventory.
Sentence 'Sentence' means that there was a case brought about the will, and the court came to a determination.
Sequestration A writ authorising seizure of property.
(Spurious) Will False, fake or illegitimate will.
Subduction of caveat The person against whom the caveat was issued can apply to the caveat to be "subducted" or withdrawn, to allow probate or administration to be granted.
SurrogateSurrPerson who dealt with probate, on behalf of the bishop.
Testamentary Dispute A document concerning a legal dispute about an estate.
Testator A man who has made a will.
Testatrix A woman who has made a will.
TMS "Their Majesties' Service/Ship" (ie William and Mary)
TuitionT, Tui, TuonTuition agreement. Relates to guardianship over minors under 14 (boys) or 12 (girls). The guardian was chosen by the court.
Valuation Valuation of the estate at time of death.
WillW, WiA written statement by which a person sets out how he/she wishes their property etc to be distributed after their death.

Further Reading

If you would like to know more about the ecclesiastical courts read through Church of England Courts which will explain the role of the courts and their hierarchy.