What are probate records?
'Probate' is a term commonly used when talking about the right to deal with a deceased person's affairs.
Before a will can take effect, a grant of probate must be made by a court. If someone dies without having made a will, the court can grant letters of administration for the disposal of the estate. Since 1858, grants of probate and administration have been made in the Principal and District Registries of the Probate Court.
Last will and testament
A will is essentially a legal document in which a person records their last wishes before they die and describes the rights of others over their property after their death. A person making a will (known as a testator) either signs their will personally, or has it signed by someone in his/her presence and at his/her direction. Although anyone can make a will, provided they are of sound mind, only a small proportion of the population in the 19th century made wills. Married women rarely made wills before 1882.
A will is more properly termed a ‘last will and testament’ - a will deals with land and buildings and a testament with any sort of property, for example money, furniture, stock and so on.
The person making the will is referred to as the testator while those who are left goods and property in a will are known as beneficiaries.
Those who are appointed to administer the terms of the will (that is to carry out the wishes of the testator as laid down in the will) are known as executors.
Because beneficiaries are nearly always relatives of the testator and executors can often be relatives as well, you can often extract many family details from a will.
It is possible for a person to amend their will at any time, or even several times. These amendments are known as codicils and have to be separately dated and attested in the same way as a will.
Wills only take effect after the person dies and after they have been proved in court, that is a grant of probate has been issued. The grant of probate authenticates the will and gives the executors the power to administer the estate. Probate can take weeks, months or even years.
Letters of administration (admons)
As well as wills, you will come across ‘letters of administration' and ‘letters of administration with will annexed’.
A grant of letters of administration with will annexed is issued where
- the will did not specify any executors
- the executors were unable to carry out the terms of the will, renounced their intention to do so, or they had died
If a person dies without making a will, he/she is described as ‘intestate’. In this case, the court can grant ‘letters of administration’ which appoints administrators to administer the estate of the intestate.
Letters of administration are sometimes referred to as ‘admons’.
History of probate
Before 1858, the Established Church (the Church of Ireland), was responsible for granting probate and letters of administration through the Prerogative Court of the Archbishop of Armagh and the consistorial courts in each diocese. This was swept away in 1857 by the Court of Probate and Letters of Administration Act (Ireland), when probate matters were transferred from the ecclesiastical courts to the civil courts. You can search indexes to pre-1858 wills on PRONI's Name Search application.
The Prerogative Court and the consistorial courts were replaced by the Principal Registry in Dublin and a number of District Registries of the Probate Court. You could apply for a grant of probate or letters of administration at the Principal Probate Registry in all cases, but application could also be made at a District Registry within whose area the deceased had a fixed place of residence.
The District Registries covering what is now Northern Ireland were those for Armagh, Belfast and Londonderry. From 1858 to 1921 (when it was abolished), the Armagh Registry covered testators living in Cos Armagh, Fermanagh, Louth, Monaghan and Tyrone (except for the baronies of Strabane and Omagh in Co. Tyrone). Belfast District Registry from 1858-1921 covered Cos Antrim and Down; while the Londonderry District Registry covered covered Cos Donegal, Londonderry and the baronies of Strabane and Omagh in Co Tyrone for the same period.
What information might I find in a will?
Wills form one of the most important sources of information for family and local history and can shed light on many aspects of the social and economic history of Northern Ireland. They include
- the name, address and occupation of the testator
- the names of the beneficiaries (and sometimes their address and occupation) who may be members of the family
- details of the property and goods of the testator
- the names of the executors and witnesses to the will (who may also be related to the testator)
- the date when the will was made
Wills can therefore give a complete picture of a family and how they lived, as well as evidence of their wealth and social status.
What probate records are available on the Will Calendars database?
From 1858 onwards, Grants of probate and letters of administration were indexed in Calendars of Wills and Administrations. Calendars were published annually and ordered alphabetically by name of the deceased. This application provides a fully searchable index to the will calendar entries for the three District Probate Registries of Armagh, Belfast and Londonderry, with the facility to view the entire will calendar entry for each successful search. The database covers the period 1858-1965.
Unfortunately, the original wills of the Principal Registry up to 1904 and of the District Registries up to 1899 were lost in 1922 when the Public Record Office of Ireland in Dublin was destroyed. Luckily, copies of wills that were made by the District Registries survived as they had not been transferred to the Public Record Office in Dublin. These copies of wills were written into large volumes – those for the District Registries of Armagh, Belfast and Londonderry are held in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. The contents of these volumes have been digitised and made available in the Will Calendars application.