Under the Wills Act of 1837, for a will to be legal it had to be written down and signed by two independent witnesses who were not to be beneficiaries.
Before this the earliest wills date back to 1383 in London. These were in the main death bed expressions and could be either written or Non Cupative (nunc.) - oral wills
During this time:
If there was no Will this third went to charity.
There are some unusual examples of written wills. One was simply written on a stable door and another one consisted of three words only, “Everything to Wife”.
Before 1383 Wills and Laws of Succession followed Manorial Custom & Practice, some examples of which are:
Manorial Customs varied considerably as can be seen from the 1422 Custom Roll and Rental of John de Assheton, when Henry 6th came to the throne. And, the 1360 Extent of Tintwistle and Longdendale when the Black Prince became Lord of the Manor.
The Statute of Wills of 1540 allowed males from the age of 14 and females from 12 years to make wills. This was raised to 21 by the 1837 Act. Excluded were lunatics, idiots, prisoners, traitors and heretics.
Wills of unmarried women and widows were common, but until the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1882 married women were not allowed to make wills. Before this they could not by law own property, which together with their possessions were treated as those of their husband’s.
Non Cupative Wills became illegal in 1837 except for members of the armed forces who died in action.
Even if your relative never left a will of his own – he could be mentioned as a beneficiary in that of a relative or near neighbour. (Cheshire Wills Beneficiaries Index - available from the Family History Society of Cheshire.
Wills came under Civil Law on 12th January 1858 and had to be proved by District Probate Registries. Click the following links for a couple of guides with excellent information at the National Archives website
Locally Wills within the last 50 years are still held at the District Probate Registry on Quay Street in Manchester and are then transferred to the Principal Probate Registry at London. An index of these is held at Greater Manchester Record Office. See the GMCRO Website. There is also a microfiche copy of the National Wills index at Manchester Central Library 1858-1943. These indexes often reveal significant information particularly before 1892.
Copies of the Wills Calendar Indexes are also available on fiches at the Family History Society of Cheshire's Mobberley Research Centre, Chester Record Office and Manchester & Lancs FHS centre at Clayton House. Starting in 1858 they cover the whole country and go up to 1943. Other main libraries also have copies. These index abstracts contain quite a bit of information regarding the value of the estate and next of kin.
The National Wills Calendars are available to search via Ancestry: England Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966 and 1973 - 1995 this should give you a year so you can search the following website.
The new Government site to search and order Wills from 1858 plus Soldiers Handwritten Wills 1850-1986 and should be available for the centenary of World War One. These will cost £10 each. HERE
Original wills during the Commonwealth Period are held at The National Archives, but indexing is poor.
It also became law in 1926 for solicitors to place notices in local newspapers and the London Gazette before going to probate. See Gazettes on-line. Solicitors have often deposited their archives at County Records Office. Local Law Societes can often help to track down when various legal practices existed, but the National Law Society charges £25.00. If you are lucky enough to find your ancestor's documents in solicitors' deposits you could discover a minor treasure trove of family documents.
Title Deeds also require proof of death and the relevant parts of a person's Will.
The England and Wales National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations) 1858-1966 and 1973-1995 is now available to search at: http://search.ancestry.co.uk/search/db.aspx?dbid=1904
Wills were proven through Ecclesiastical Courts; there were over 250 of these. The records for most of these are kept in local records offices. Most have been indexed and many of the indexes have been published You will need to consult the book by Jeremy Gibson, called Probate Jurisdictions: Where to Look for Wills. This is arranged by county, and then by church court within that.
It roughly works out like this. Property in one Diocese – Will proved in the Diocesan Court. Property in more than one Diocese – Will proved in the Bishopric’s Consistory Court. Property in more than on Bishopric – Will proved by either the Prerogative Courts of York or Canterbury – with Canterbury taking prerogative over York.
The PCY covered Cheshire, Cumberland, Lancashire, Northumberland, Westmorland and Yorkshire. These Wills are held at the Borthwick institute at York and are in the process of being digitized.
The PCC covered the South of England and Wales and these wills are searchable and available to download at the National Archives website - £3.50
Until 1545 When the Bishopric of Chester was created our area fell under the jurisdiction of The Consistory Court at Litchfield (Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Derbyshire, Shropshire) in 1545 (Cheshire, Flintshire, Denbigh and Lancashire transferred to Chester).
Also until 1545 the Archdeaconry of Chester was within the Archdeaconry of Litchfield, when it transferred to become the Diocese of Chester.
For more information about Wills before 1858 read the National Archives Research Guide.
From 1796 everyone with disposable property worth more than £5 had to pay Death Duties (see the National Archives research guide – ‘Death Duty Registers from 1796) – This was increased to £20 in 1858.
Death Duty Registers are now available to search via The Find my Past website.
For Wills pre 1858 Tameside Local Studies Library has indexes (published by the Lancashire and Cheshire Record Society) of all the wills proved at Chester up until 1837 and held at Chester Record Office. However, since the Chester and Lancashire Record Offices were split all the wills for the Lancashire side of Tameside are now held at Preston.
Cheshire wills are now searchable online and copies can be ordered from:
ALL wills held at Cheshire Records Office are now downloadable via Find My Past Cheshire Collection
Lancashire Wills on-line - Fully Searchable index of Lancashire wills from the mid 15th Century to 1858. This mainly re-directs people to the relevant LDS Film to hire, but you can use the information as a guide to ordering from Lancashire Record Office.
Many Wills Indexes prior to 1858 are available to search via Ancestry and FindMyPast.
Between 1530 and 1750 some courts required an inventory of the deceased's movable goods to be filed with the Grant of Probate. Two or three assessors were appointed and these could often be friends of the deceased or locally appointed officials. These inventories can be very revealing in trying to work out your ancestor's social status, the tools of his trade and living standards etc. They also listed debts owing at the time to the deceased and these were added to the value of his estate and often give a whole list of names of neighbours, friends and business people your ancestor came into contact with during his day-to-day life.. Locally not many inventories seem to exist after about 1720
This is an addition to a Will and contains special clauses or last minute bequests. Again as with a Will it needs to make it clear which Will it refers to and must also be signed by two non-beneficiary witnesses. One example was the appointment of an additional executor to a Will, where the testator possibly felt his two original executors might need additional input to make sure they carried out his instructions effectively.
These would come before whichever court had proved the Grant of Probate and usually took the form of the name of the Testator, then the person contesting the Will versus the names of the executors. There is a 7% sample of PCC (Prerogative Court of Canterbury) litigations searchable on-line via the PRO (Public Record Office) on-line Catalogue. These cases were mostly concerning the validity of wills.
Cases concerned with the inheritance of property through wills were dealt with by Chancery: put Chancery Proceedings the National Archives website search box: Chancery Proceedings: Since the late 14th century, hundreds of thousands of disputes over inheritance and wills, lands, trusts, debts, marriage settlements, apprenticeships, and other parts of the fabric of daily life, were heard by the Lord Chancellor or his deputies. People turned to his court of Chancery because it was an equity court, promising a merciful justice not bound by the strict rules of the common law courts.
The Bernau card index. Held in the Society of Genealogist's Library is a microfilm collection of about four and a half million slips (sorted by surname only) relating to unindexed material in the Public Record Office, mainly Chancery and Exchequer Court Depositions and Proceedings, compiled by C A Bernau.
Scottish Wills are available via Scotlands People