Recently, I had a reader write to me to ask about whether a man could amend a will during the Regency period, and, if so, what all was involved. The implication was the will was amended to subvert another from receiving his proper inheritance in a story the person read. She wanted to know whether someone would have taken note of the changes and whether this was a plot device acceptable for the time period.
My answer may shock some of you: Someone would need to come forward to protest a will for any notice to be taken. As long as it and any codicils are in proper form, the probate court would likely approve it for execution. Unless a will is contested, the probate court only looks at the form. Some one has to come forward and say that there is something wrong with the execution and even then one doesn’t always win.
That being said, any will could be contested or disputed, and might well be overturned if the will is drawn up under suspicious circumstance without witnesses who can be called to the court to testify the contents within are what the will maker wanted and he was of sound mind at the time. The mere fact that a man was always changing his will would not draw question to its validity at the time of its execution. However, the question of whether the man died before he made another change may be required before the will could be called “valid.”
The National Archives site is an excellent source for information on wills, inheritance, etc. You may find it at this link:
Wills were proved by a number of courts. The only probate court records held by The National Archives are those of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury up to 1858.
The Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC), which actually sat in London, was the senior church court, and dealt:
- with the wills of relatively wealthy people living in the south of England and Wales
- with the estates of people who died at sea or abroad leaving personal property in England or Wales
From 1653 to 1660, the PCC was the only court to deal with wills and administrations.
To locate records of wills or administration, first establish where they were proved. The National Archives Guide on Wills or administrations before 1858 can help a person determine which court proved a will or administration.
Disputes regarding wills and the settlement of estates could arise over the:
- validity of a will
- claims of people seeking letters of administration
- disputes about the terms of a will
A single will may have led to lawsuits both in Chancery and the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. If there was litigation, additional records will have been created, such as:
- the depositions of witnesses
Up to 1782 every executor or administrator was required to send the registry of the court an inventory of the deceased’s goods.
The inventory itemized the estate held by the deceased, including:
- debts owed and owing
Real estate (land) was not normally included in estimates and totals.
Only about 800 pre-1660 inventories have survived.
For the period 1660-1782, search The National Archives catalogue by name of deceased for records of inventories in:
For the period 1722-1858, they are mostly in PROB 31.
Other records that can indicate the value of a person’s estate are:
- the bonds in PROB 46 (1713-1858) were entered into by administrators and some executors of estates. In the 16th and 17th centuries the bonds give a rough idea of the value of the estate. In the 18th and 19th centuries bonds are an unreliable measure of the valuation of an estate, although they are thought to be roughly double the value
- probate and administration act books in PROB 8 and PROB 9 (from 1796)
- warrants – estimates of servicemen’s estates and those under £40, £20 and £5, respectively, are noted on some of the 17th century warrants and most of the 18th and 19th century warrants in PROB 14
- register books in PROB 12 for records of pauper estates
- orders for the distribution of some intestates’ goods in PROB 16
- orders of court books, 1816-1857 in PROB 38 contain orders for the revaluation of some 19th century estates
- death duty registers which can give the value of estates. Read the National Archives guide on Death duties 1796-1903 for information