A 'will' was a written instrument providing for the disposition of a person's 'real' estate (land and buildings) while a 'testament' disposed of a person's property (money, pictures, furntiture, tools and leasehold land). These two terms have now come to be synonymous.
To be valid, a will must be dated, described as the last will and testament , the author must be of sound mond, have property worth at least £5, it must be signed by the author at the bottom of each page and at the end in the presence of two witnesses. Codicils are additions or modifications which can be affixed and must be dated , signed and witnessed as the will is. A will names the person or person's, the executor, to carry out the deceased wishes. The executor obtains the official documents form the court, the 'grant of probate', to prove that he/she is legally authorised to administer the estate. A person dies intestate when no will is left and then letters of administration (ADMONS) have to be obtained by the next of kin.
Prior to 1858, English wills were proved in church courts, either locally or centrally, with each court keeping its own records. Since that date the administration of probate has been the responsibility of the state, with local probate offices but a central register of wills.
Finding a will prior to 1858 can be difficult, since the probate court used will depend on the value and location of the estate, among other factors.
We are fortunate in that two of our local record offices have readily available indexes to wills. Details are given below.
The Bristol Record Office website contains downloadable (.pdf) indexes to wills proved at Bristol 1791-1858.
The Gloucestershire Record Office provides an on-line genealogical database including wills, which can be searched.
Most pre-1858 Somerset wills were destroyed by German bombing in 1942. However, some information is available and there is a useful guide on the website of the Somerset Heritage Centre.
Wills since 1858
All wills proved in England and Wales since 12th January 1858 are listed in annual indexes, which contain brief details usually sufficient to identify the deceased. Copies of the Indexes published since 1900 up to the present day are available openly in Bristol at the District Probate Registry, The Crescent Centre, Temple Back, Bristol, BS1 6EP, telephone 0117 927 3915. A microfiche copy of the probate index from 1858 to 1943 is available at Bristol Record Office. There is a searchable database on Ancestry of wills proved between 1861 to 1941. However, it does not include the years 1858-1860 and there are some gaps for the years 1863, 1868, 1873, 1876, 1877, 1883, 1888, 1899-1903 and 1910-1911.
A searchable database is much easier and quicker to use than printed indexes or those on microfiche.
Information on how to obtain a copy of a post-1858 will can be found on the HM Court Service website.
PCC Wills before 1858
Prior to 1858, the national court for obtaining probate was the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, which was a church court based in London. It was intended to deal with wealthier people who held property located in more than one of the local jurisdictions. However, it was commonly used by other people, perhaps as a matter of prestige. PCC wills can be viewed at The National Archives at Kew, London.
The National Archives has an index to over one million PCC wills from 1384 to 1858 which is available on the Internet. Copies of wills can be downloaded for £3.50. Details can be found at The National Archives.
Click here to see a useful National Archives document on the subject.