|Cover of a probate file (Queensland)|
These tips demonstrate why I recommend that you look for wills for every person in your family tree. [UPDATE, July 2019: It now costs only £1.50 for a copy of a will/probate record for England and Wales from 1858 to the present day.]
Probate records, wills, intestacies, administrations and related documents are vitally important for family history. They provide clues for further research, and they 'put flesh on the bones' as we research our ancestors. They often have relationship details that prove whether we are researching the correct person or someone else with the same name.
Tip 1. Use indexes for other States and countries. There may be copies of a will or related documents in multiple places, including record offices far away from where the person died. Examples:
- Magdalene NIELSON: Formerly of Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia, but late of New York, USA; wife of Peter NIELSON (formerly of Bundaberg but at present of Copenhagen, Denmark). The Supreme Court file at Queensland State Archives includes Magdalene's death certificate from America (giving her age, marital status, occupation, birthplace, how long in USA, how long in New York City, names and birthplaces of her father and mother, her place and cause of death, and class of dwelling); and a transit permit for her body to go to Germany, stating the exact burial place there.
- Ellis READ: He owned land at Burketown, Queensland, Australia; and when it was sold, a grant of probate was required so that a certificate of title could be issued. His Supreme Court file at Queensland State Archives shows that he lived in Mexico from 1882 to 1890; and between 1887 and 1890 he make business trips to England and lived there for a few months at a time. He died in Mexico in 1890. An affidavit gives a translation of details from his death certificate (age, cause of death, burial place, native place, occupation, wife's maiden name, father's name, mother's maiden name).
- Julia WEBSTER (my great-great-grandmother): Probate was granted in New South Wales, and I found her will in New South Wales will books 1800-1952; but there are also documents at the Public Record Office of Victoria (PROV) because Julia had property in both States. She lived in NSW but was entitled to a share of the estate of her late brother, Malcolm John CAMPBELL, in Victoria. (The PROV files include extra documents, and I was able to download digital copies free of charge.)
- Some of the other tips below give more examples of finding information in records of another State or country.
Tip 2: Probate files may include birth, death and marriage certificates. The death certificate in a probate file is usually more accurate than a typed certificate that was issued later, and sometimes it has extra or significantly different details (examples are in Free Certificates in Archives Files.) Probate files often contain certificates that would otherwise be restricted and/or expensive!
- Some probate files contain birth, baptism, marriage or death certificates because beneficiaries had to prove their relationship to the deceased.
- From about the mid-1890s onwards, most Queensland Supreme Court probate files (and some intestacy files) contain a death certificate. The majority of these files are at Qld State Archives and have no access restrictions, so you can see very recent certificates. Photocopies cost about $1 per page, but if you take digital photos or copy from microfilm to a USB drive, there is no charge. It is worthwhile looking for files for your direct ancestors, their siblings and other relatives.
Tip 3: Some wills are only in land title records. If a person died without a will, his/her relatives would need to prove their relationship before the deceased's land could be transferred to them. The Titles Registry in Queensland holds many records of intestate estates, and many wills that did not go through the Supreme Court. Examples:
- The Titles Registry has a large packet of documents for a particular person (name withheld at my client's request), including seven certificates for births, deaths and marriages of various family members.
- Indexes to Transmission of Real Estate by Death 1878-1940, from Queensland Government Gazette notices, include all names mentioned. Many property owners and claimants lived interstate or overseas. For a detailed description of the index and original records, see the book Tips for Queensland Research.
Tip 4: Probate files may give parents' names when death certificates don't. Example:
- Margaret STAPLETON: Her death certificate in Queensland, Australia, says 'born Ireland, parents names unknown'; but her probate file at Queensland State Archives reveals their names. In her will, Margaret left property to her sister Johanna in Ireland. As Johanna's surname was spelt incorrectly in the will, she had to prove that she was the person named as beneficiary. Johanna was unable to supply her birth certificate because her birth had not been registered. Instead she sent a copy of her baptism record from a parish register in England! It gave her father's name and mother's maiden name.
Tip 5: There may be a delay, or there may be two separate probate files created many years apart. Examples:
- A second file was sometimes created because one of the deceased's children later applied for guardianship of younger siblings.
- Abraham ALMAN of Melbourne, Australia, died in 1854. Twelve years later, administration of his estate was granted (in the United Kingdom) to his widow, who had since remarried and was living in Middlesex, England.
- See Tip 10 for more examples of probate being granted decades after the death.
Tip 6: Read before you research. Look for published guides and search procedures, which Archives and Record Offices often put on their Web sites. If you don't understand how the records are arranged, you may fail to find a will. Example:
- Unlike other States, Queensland has three Supreme Court Districts (Northern, Central and Southern); and each district keeps separate records. For each of these three districts there are two series of files:
- Ecclesiastical files ('wills'). This series includes (1) files with a will, and (2) files without a will if the estate was administered by someone other than the Public Curator.
- Public Curator orders and elections (commonly but misleadingly called 'intestacies'). This series includes (1) files without a will, (2) files with a will that named the Public Curator as executor, and (3) files for deceased estates administered by the Public Curator because the will was not valid (eg, if it was unsigned).
In other words, there are six main series whose indexes you may need to search - plus minor series such as Supreme Court (Southern District) orders to administer (inventories). For more suggestions, see my book Tips for Queensland Research.
Tip 7: If you don't find it, repeat the search. Make a note of searches with negative results, and try again later. Examples: If you used the old version of the index to Queensland wills up to 1900, you would not have found these entries. The new version corrected hundreds of indexing errors including these:
- 'John SMITH, late of Brisbane' was indexed as 'LATE, John Smith'
- 'Michael KELLY junior' was indexed as 'JUNIOR, Michael Kelly'
- 'August NEIDLER of Helen Street' was indexed as 'STREET, Helen' (yes, really!)
Tip 8: A few Queensland Supreme Court probate files contain photographs. The ones I've seen were for people 'missing, believed drowned' after the steamers Pearl and Lucinda collided in 1896.
Tip 9: FindMyPast will soon be the largest online resource for UK wills/probate, and those records include data for people from other countries including Australia.
FindMyPast's 'wills and probate' collection includes (to name just a few) New South Wales will books 1800-1952 and Great Western Railway Shareholders index (see 6 Genealogy Sources You May Have Overlooked); an index to Queensland intestacies and wills 1859-1900 from Government Gazette notices; Bank of England wills extracts 1717-1845; National Probate Calendar (England/Wales) 1858-2019; British India Office wills and probate; London probate index; Suffolk testator index 1847-1857; index to Death Duty Registers 1796-1903; index of Irish wills 1484-1858; and one of my favourites, Prerogative and Exchequer Courts of York Probate Index 1688-1858. Material added to FindMyPast's wills and probate collection (http://bit.ly/2ALLwills) includes the National Wills Index from Origins.net for pre-1857 probate material for England and Wales. To narrow your search, click 'Browse record set', scroll down ('see more') and select the one(s) you want.
Tip 10: Ancestry has indexes or images for many series of wills, administrations, probate records, death duty registers etc, with details for thousands of people from all over the world. On that search page, untick 'Only records from [specific country]'.
Examples below (I'm only quoting selected details) are from the National Probate Calendar (index of wills and administrations) for England and Wales, 1858 to the present date. I usually search the index for 1858-2019, then go to the Government site to order a digital copy of the will/probate record for just £1.50 (it used to be £10.00).
- George AMBLER of Richmond, Melbourne, Australia, died 10 Jun 1864. Administration granted 13 years later to his widow in Wales.
- Elma BERG of Chillagoe, North Queensland, Australia, died 15 Dec 1902.
- Joseph MOUNTAIN of London died 30 May 1834 at Hammersmith, Middlesex. Next of kin was his son John MOUNTAIN living (in 1883) in the USA.
- Harry White SMITH, otherwise known as Harry WHITE, formerly of Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, but late a Corporal in the 94th Regiment of Foot, died 5 Dec 1879 at Fort Albert Edward, South Africa.
- Richard SMITH late of Amoy, China, merchant, bachelor, died 26 Jan 1857 at Amoy. Administration was granted to his father in 1880 (23 years after Richard died).
Do you have any personal tips about wills, intestacies and probate records? (P.S. I've recently posted my own thoughts about Will Books.)