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Wills and probate

Wills

Wills vary in length and detail, but often contain information about family and friends, property and goods.

They may prove the relationships between two or more people as they usually mention the names of relatives.

They give an idea of the wealth and possessions of an individual and may also mention bequests to local churches, charities and servants.

Sometimes they also give personal opinions, arrangements for children’s education, etc.

The person making the will is called the testator (or testatrix, if female). The testator’s wishes are carried out by an appointed person, or persons, known as the executor(s) (or executrix, if female).

The executor(s) had to attend a probate court to have the will proved before they could carry out the testator’s wishes.

The court would issue a grant of probate to give authority to the executor(s) to carry out the provisions of the will.

Originally, a will dealt with land and property, while a separate testament disposed of personal goods. The two documents began to overlap over time, until they merged into a single ‘will and testament’.

A codicil is an amendment to a will, written by the testator, which should have been proved at the same time as the will. There may be more than one codicil to any one will.

Some wills are ‘nuncupative’, which means that they were dictated aloud, sometimes before going to war or when the testator was on their death bed.

Such wills were written down and sworn to be accurate by witnesses, but were not signed nor sealed by the testator.

Not everyone made a will. Those with small estates or owning little or no property may never have made one.

Property normally descended to the eldest son, so a will may have been made only if the testator wished to make special provision for other family members.

In other cases a will may have been made but the family did not go to the trouble and expense of having it formally proved by a court, which means it is unlikely to have survived.

Lunatics, prisoners, traitors and heretics were excluded from being able to leave a valid will.

It is rare to find a will for married women (except widows), until relatively recently.

Married women were prohibited from owning property in their own right until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882.

Before this time, they and their possessions were effectively seen as belonging to their husbands.

Wills were commonly left by landowners, the rich and those with professions or trades.