Guide to Wills and Testaments in England and Wales

Wills and testaments can open up new avenues to explore and can also prove family connections.  From 1540, when the Statute of Wills was introduced, males of 14 years and over and females of 12 years and over could make a will. 

The age in which men and women could write a will was raised to 21 in the Wills Act of 1837. Prisoners, traitors, slaves, heretics and those declared mad were unable to make a valid will.

You may find not many married women made a will as she needed her husband's consent. Any property the woman held at the time of her marriage was transferred to her husband's estate, along with any that she acquired whilst married. Unless her husband had agreed, women had no property to leave, and this remained law until the Married Women's Property Act of 1882.

Although some poorer people sometimes made a will, you are more likely to find the deceased left a will if the family was wealthy. Please view my guide on how to find a will.

Information found in Wills and Testaments

The first thing you notice when looking at a will is that they normally start with the sentence, This is the last will and testament of ..... to show this is the most recent will and rescinded any previous will and testament.

A will states the legacies left by the testator in the event of their death.

It mentions where the testator was living at the time the will was prepared, and also mentions their occupation. It also usually includes a declaration the testator was of sound mind.

The date on which the will was written was stated, but although there is often very little time between the will being written and the testator dying, sometimes many years pass before it is proved - that is when the executor of the will takes it to the court and states it was authentic and in accordance with the deceased's last wishes.

Executors stated they were prepared to fulfil the deceased's instructions. A provision was made in the will that any possible debts of the testator and their funeral expenses had to be paid before the residue was distributed.

A will may contain information about the deceased's family you were unaware of. If there is a gap in parish registers, you may find the only way of proving a relationship, for example that of a late father and his daughter, is by looking to see if the deceased left a will as it may contain information proving the connection.

Your ancestor could be mentioned in any possible wills of other family members, thus opening up a whole new avenue to research. If your ancestor was married, you may find they are mentioned in a will of a member of their wife's or husband's family.

A codicil was sometimes added to the will if the testator wanted to add information and instructions to an existing will without making out a new one.



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