by Bob Brooke
Studying the wills of ancestors is one way genealogists can not only obtain but authenticate vital information. Such documents, often signed in an ancestor's own hand, are what make long-dead forebearers come alive.
Wills are legal documents and as such provide records of entire families in some cases. Estate records indicate the relationship between the person making the will-the testator-and the person receiving the property. Often, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters, parents, and some non-relatives are named. If a person is omitted, an explanation is usually given, for instance, a prior transfer of property or the death of a child before the estate was settled.
A will answers basic genealogical questions: who, when, where. It places the deceased in the center of his environment-his occupation, his relationships with relative and friends, his thriftiness.
Numerous kinds of wills fulfill different purposes. Besides the individual will, there's the Joint Will, made by both husband and wife or two siblings. A Holographic Will is one written, dated and signed in the testator's own handwriting. A Nuncupative Will is one that's spoken or dictated in the case of sudden illness or imminent death. It must be written and presented to probate court within two weeks. These wills are sometimes called "battlefield" wills, because mortally wounded soldiers would explain to a buddy or hospital attendant how to dispose of his possessions. In fact, nuncupative wills are rare in th twentieth century. But in the early colonial days, when writing material wasn't always at hand and a considerable proportion of the population couldn't write at or wrote with difficulty even when in the best of health nuncupative wills were much more common.
The Unofficious Will is one in which the testator disregards his natural relatives and leaves his property to strangers or organizations.
The law requires that wills be proven in court. Other documents can be added to the record during this process. Signed receipts for payments made to fulfill conditions of the will and accounts of the estate, which can offer insight into the circumstances of the family at a particular time.
The petition for probate may contain a list of possible heirs, their relationship to the deceased and their addresses, even if they weren't named in the will.
Settlers from England and Europe brought the tradition of recording wills to America. Some European wills survive from the 14th century. Even in the U.S., it's possible to locate wills from the 17th century. Like church records, wills are invaluable for research before towns kept vital records.
Wills of immigrant ancestors usually offer clues to their origins abroad. While a genealogist may know the country of origin, a will can pinpoint an exact place of birth, as well as the location of relatives at the time the will was written.
If an ancestor died intestate-without leaving a will-there may be other documents relating to the distribution of the estate. Letters of administration, records of litigation, notices to creditors, inventories and newspaper announcements for missing heirs-all may yield genealogical information.
Today, the best way to study a will or any estate documents is to get a copy. This can be done in person by visiting a probate or orphan's court or by writing to the county clerk of the probate court in the county seat of the research locale. Genealogists today shouldn't have a problem getting information, either by copy or fax, but it may be necessary to abstract a will if no copies are available.
In researching a will, especially an older one, the researcher should look for the following: the name of the testator; any information about that person; all persons named in the will and their relationship to the testator; the essentials of bequests; the names of executors and witnesses; and a description of any signatures, marks or seals. If the will was originally handwritten, then a typed copy should be made of it before trying to decipher it.