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Wills often furnish vital information for genealogists.

They can:

  • define precise relationships within family groups
  • name relatives in different parts of the country and the world
  • name children, nephews or nieces whose existence you never suspected
  • bring to light family skeletons such as acknowledging illegitimate children
  • add "flesh to the bones" of a genealogical study by providing a guide to the wealth and life style of an ancestor
    The key date in searching for wills is 11 January 1858. From this date the jurisdiction of proving wills in England and Wales passed from the anglican church to the state. Before this date the archives relating to ecclesiastical courts are all important. From this date the Probate Registry is the key repository for wills and other probate documents.
  Information Provided

National Probate Index (to wills and letters of administration proved from 1858 onwards)

  • Annual index for the whole of England and Wales arranged in surname/forename order of the deceased
  • Deceased - forenames, surname, address, date of death, place of death
  • Probate Grant - date grant issued, issuing registry office, type of grant, names of executors or administrators, value of the estate
  • Executors/Administrators - names, addresses, relationship to deceased
  • Wills vary widely in the information they provide
  • However many wills provide names of spouses, children, grandchildren and other relatives
  • Many also clarify family relationships if there is more than one person with the same forename
  • Wills can also clarify the marital status of a daughter (i.e. if referred to as "spinster") or assist in locating a daughter's marriage by giving her husband's surname
  • Addresses of relatives may be given which may show immigration
  • Provide an indication of the wealth and lifestyle of the deceased
  Letters of Administration (for deaths where deceased left no will)
  • Deceased - forenames, surname, date of death, place of death, occupation, address
  • Will administrator - forenames, surname, relationship to deceased, occupation, address

Named relatives

  • Wills only reflect the situation at their time of writing (which can be a long time before the deceased's death) so do not assume that all the relatives named in the will are still alive when the will is carried out
  • In older wills, 'in laws' are commonly referred to as just brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, etc. without the 'in law' suffix
    Missing Relatives
  • Never assume that all the deceased's children are referred to in a will - it was quite common to make lifetime gifts to children instead, particularly the eldest son
    Married Women
  • Prior to the 1882 Married Women's Property Act only spinsters, widows and married woman who had their husbands consent left wills
    Delays between Death and Probate
  • It is wise to search the indexes for at least 3 years after the date of the ancestor's death
  • Before 1733 (apart from 1651-60) texts, sentences and probate clauses were written in Latin
  Access - National Probate Index (to wills and letters of administration proved from 1858 onwards)
  1858 onwards
    Obtaining copies of Wills (proved from 1858 onwards)
  • Order by post from Postal Searches & Copies Dept, Probate Registry, Castle Chambers, Clifford Street, York, YO1 9RG (Tel: 01904-666777; Fax 01904-666776). The order form can be downloaded from The form requires details of the deceased (name, date of death, address) which can be found in the National Probate Index (see above)
  • Alternatively you can order in person at the Principal Probate Registry or at other registries and sub-registries (key in probate in the court work type search to find local registry office)
  • The minimum information required when ordering is the deceased's full name and either the date of death or the search period. If the search period is limited to 4 years, it costs £5 for the search and a single copy of the grant of probate together with the will (if any). Extending the search period costs an additional £3 for each 4 year extension.
  • To narrow down the search you may wish to consult the National Probate Index yourself first. See above for where you can access this index. You will then be able to provide details of the actual date of death, the grant type, the issuing Registry and the grant issue date. At the very least this will considerably speed up the supply of the copied will and will reduce the cost if your initial search period exceeds 4 years.
  Access - Pre 1858 Wills - Determining which Ecclesiastical Court had Jurisdiction
  Pre 1858
  • Finding copies of pre 1858 wills is a complex task and it is worth first consulting a detailed guide such as Gibson's 'Probate Jurisdictions: Where to Look for Wills'
  • Another way of determining which ecclesiastical court proved a will is to consult the annual indexes to Death Duty Registers - microfilmed copies of the indexes from 1796 onwards can be viewed at the Family Records Centre or at your local LDS Family History Centre - however bear in mind that only wills on which duty was payable are listed
  • If your ancestor lived south of the River Humber or in Wales and was relatively wealthy or died after 1800 there is a fair chance that the will was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC)
  • If you ancestor died abroad or at sea leaving behind property in England or Wales then the court having jurisdiction would also be the central Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC)
  • By the 1830s over a third of all wills in England and Wales were proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC)
  • If your ancestor was relatively wealthy and lived in the northern counties then it is possible that the will was proved in the central Prerogative Court of York (PYC)
  • Otherwise if none of the above applies, it is most likely that the will was proved in one of the many lower level ecclesiastical courts of which there were over 250
    Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) Wills
  • All 1 million plus wills that were proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) between 1384 and 1858 are held at the National Archives at Kew
  • Any PCC will can be viewed there provided 3 days notice is given (the wills are stored off-site)
  • Microfilm copies of all PCC wills can be viewed at the Family Records Centre
  • Alternatively you can search the complete index to all PCC wills at the National Archives Documents Online web site and then download images of your located will - there is no charge for searching but there is a fee for requested image downloads.
    Prerogative Court of York (PYC) Wills
    Wills proved in Other Ecclesiastical Courts in England
  • Most wills for other ecclesiastical courts (archdeacon courts, bishop diocesan courts, peculiar courts) are held in the relevant Record Office
  • In the case of Yorkshire, this is the Borthwick Institute except for wills proved in the Archdeaconry of Richmond and the peculiars of Arkengarthdale, Hunsingore, Knaresborough, Masham and Middleham in which case the wills are held at Leeds Archives
  • Most of these wills have been indexed and many of the indexes can be viewed at your local LDS Family History Centre
    Wills proved in Welsh Ecclesiastical Courts
This page last updated: 24 November 2006