Wills and probate records are much more than just lists of possessions your ancestors left when they died. They can provide details of a forebear's wealth and social standing; you can find out about their tastes and interests; and you can even discover the history of family heirlooms. Plus, details of the beneficiaries can reveal new relatives for you to explore.
The National Probate Calendar is the single most important resource for tracing your ancestors' wills – and you won't find it anywhere else online. As well as telling you where and when your ancestors died – and revealing the value of the estate they left – it provides a vital link to wills and probate records created in England and Wales between 1861 and 1941.
Find an ancestor in this collection of more than 6 million names, and it's far easier to get a copy of their last testament from the Principal Probate Registry, with all the extra detail that provides.
It's easy to search for your ancestors in the National Probate Calendar. Simply enter 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, and use the +/- options to widen your search.
You'll see a list of results. To view the original Calendar entry, just click 'View original image'. This will usually tell you the deceased's name, their date and place of death and the name of the executor – who may be another family member. Perhaps the most enlightening information, though, is the value of the estate.
Once you've found an ancestor in the Calendar, you can order copies of their original probate records, often including a will, from the Principal Probate Registry. The Registry provides an application form and it aims to respond to requests within 21 working days, but it can take longer, so be prepared to wait.
When you receive the full records, examine the details for useful information. Perhaps they mention a particular location, which you can then pinpoint your ancestor in censuses and city 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.
Another collection that will help you discover lost riches in your family tree is England, Andrews Newspaper Index Cards, 1790-1976. These detailed newspaper cuttings were put together by heir hunters, chasing the correct beneficiaries to your ancestors' property after they died.
Looking for wills from the UK before 1861? We have records to help you there, too. These aren't arranged in a single national collection like the National Probate Calendar, but they often include original copies of your ancestors' actual wills, so you can see exactly what they owned and who they left it to.
This collection includes thousands of probate records that help you follow your family's fortunes through 300 years of London life. More than that, though, it lets you pinpoint property owners from outside the capital – and even overseas.
Early wills were proved in various courts around the country, depending not on where someone lived, but where they had assets. Thousands of people from other parts of the country – and all over the British Empire – owned houses or land in London, so you may find their wills here.
Dorset's history makes fascinating reading. Since the 16th century, the county has seen everything from pirate raids to rural riots. No documents give you a greater insight into this storied past than wills and probate records.
Find an ancestor among these 27,000 records, and you could discover a will detailing their family relationships; an inventory listing their possessions; and even a letter of administration showing who was appointed their executor.
This mammoth index summarises almost 2 million wills and probate documents from all over Britain from the 16th to the 19th century. If you're struggling to find your forebears' last testaments elsewhere, it's worth just typing in their name and having a look here.
The information was collated from a variety of different sources, so specific details vary from record to record. However, all of them include references to help you find the full records.
We also have many smaller collections of probate records from individual counties around the UK. These include several from Scotland, and five huge indexes to Irish wills proved between 1536 and 1857.See all our probate collections
As legal documents, wills are very consistent in their style and content. This makes it easier to pick out key pieces of information. What varies far more are the specifics within the will. While one person may have left a fortune in cash and bags of treasure, another may have included nothing more than some old shoes or a couple of sheep!
Charles Darwin's will from 1882 is a great example of how these historical documents are structured. Click on each arrow for more information.
Beneficiary – A person who has a claim to the money or property left in a will
Codicil – An amendment made to a will
Estate – The money and property left by the deceased
Executor – The person appointed by the court to distribute the estate
Inventory – A document listing a person's estate
Letter of administration – Used to deal with an estate if no will was left
Probate – The process of making a will legal
Testator – A person making a will