I've a very recent example of a will in my family in which none of the bequests was actually paid due to a change in circumstances, and this has set me thinking about which records would show what actually happened to an estate (as opposed to what a will says should happen). My focus is England and Wales.

Death Duty Registers 1796-1903 held at the National Archives (indexes on Findmypast) could help, but there are gaps in the record set, and not all estates fell within the scope of the relevant duties. I might find court records if there was a dispute about the will. Or there might be an itemised and valued inventory of goods with a will or probate document that could show how likely it was that the estate was sufficient to cover the bequests.

What other possibilities are there?

  • In the US, I would look for a probate packet at the county courthouse. Do you know the location where the will was proved (e.g. from a probate calendar)?
    – Jan Murphy
    Sep 2, 2016 at 17:05
  • 1
    @JanMurphy This isnt a specific will, but a general question. I guess what you call a probate packet is what I'd call the will, grant of probate and inventory if one exists.
    – user104
    Sep 2, 2016 at 18:33
  • I suppose most courts in the US would call them the Probate Case Files. They're bundles of loose papers, generally found in a wrapper and marked with the name of the deceased and the case number. They exist for both testate and intestate estates (if there is no will, i.e. intestate, there will be letters of administration instead).
    – Jan Murphy
    Sep 4, 2016 at 14:49
  • 1
    My suspicion @JanMurphy is that English & Welsh probate law results in much simpler - and less - documentation over here than in the USA.
    – AdrianB38
    Sep 4, 2016 at 18:06

3 Answers 3


Not very helpful but in the two cases where I have acted as the Executor of a will, I would say that the sole documentation generated was:

  • The will itself;
  • The Request for Probate;
  • The information about the estate sent off with(?) the Request for Probate and destined for HM Revenue & Customs so that they knew the size of the estate and how much Inheritance Tax was due - if any;
  • The Grant of Probate.

Of those documents, the last in the sequence is the Grant of Probate. The question then arises - at what point does the Executor(s) (presumably) realise that the size of the estate doesn't match the bequests in the will? Theoretically, because the taxman wants to know the size of the estate, this realisation should come before the Request for Probate and tax form is sent off. If so, then the Grant of Probate should record the size of the estate and this can be compared to the terms of the will. This is itself a tricky task as the value quoted on the grant needs to be interpreted:

The values quoted in probate proceedings from 1858 onwards are gross figures for the personal estate - exact values should appear from 1881 onwards. Real estate was excluded unless it had been leased to a tenant for a fixed term of years - clearly this had income generation but also, I imagine, could not be disposed of as easily. (I have no idea about the scope of the estate pre-1858 under Church Court rules).

From 1898 onwards, real property was included in valuations unless it was subject to a settlement or trust. So, for instance, property that the deceased only had a life interest in would not be included in the valuation.

(See Mark Herber, Ancestral Trails, p179).

This is about the only way that I can see of seeing of there was an issue - clearly the major unknown in this theory is the value of any real estate before 1898.

If the realisation of an issue comes after the Request for Probate and tax form is sent off, then I doubt there is any record. In theory, the powers-that-be could require my accounts as an executor and this would record the shortfall in the realised value, but (a) how often do they enquire? and (b) given that the accounts would go into the Tax system, how would they ever surface again?


Looking at the instructions for searching and ordering copies of wills on wills.gov.uk, 'Search for a Will':

Not all grants of representation contain a will. Check the type of grant when you search:

  • ‘Probate’ or ‘Grant and Will’ – a will exists and will be provided
  • ‘Admon with Will’ or ‘Grant and Will’ – a will exists and will be provided
  • ‘Administration (Admon) or Grant’ – a will doesn’t exist and won’t be provided

On the beta site, there are three search options:

  • Wills and Probate 1996 to present
  • Wills and Probate 1858 – 1996
  • Soldier's Wills

Searching "Wills and Probate 1996 to present" returns search results only (and may be the product of born-digital data). I have no search results in my own research for "Soldier's Wills" so I'm not sure what form the results take.

For "Wills and Probate 1858 – 1996", the results link to images of the printed pages in the National Probate Calendar. For some entries, there are hand-written additions to the entries in the Calendar -- these refer to additional grants.

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These additional entries are clues to more records.

I've found notices about probates in the British Newspaper Archive (which I used as pointers to locate the correct entry in the National Probate Calendar). If a family had a dispute about the probate, it might get written up in the newspaper.

I've also found clues to records in US newspapers, both as news articles (the paper writing about what was coming up in the local court calendars) and in legal notices (paid advertisements appearing in what is referred to as 'the newspaper of record' for that geographical area). The Wikipedia article suggests that The Times (London) serves that function in the United Kingdom.

So the answer to your question might be another question: did anyone complain? If the distribution in the will didn't happen, you may not know unless someone complained about it, and generated a record, either in the 'court of public opinion' (a newspaper) or in the courts.


As far as I am aware there are no centralised records that include documentation of how estates were distributed, whether or not a valid will existed.

In addition to the suggestions made by @AdrianB38 and @JanMurphy, a few suggestions I can think of are:

  • It might be possible to contact the solicitor involved in the grant of probate. I have previously enquired about doing this in another question: Obtaining probate or administration documentation from solicitor? There @AdrianB38 gave a useful answer, however I have not followed up on this to see whether this is a viable option for obtaining such information. Certainly there are privacy concerns with recent wills and probate. For older wills and administrations, it is possible that solicitors have deposited records at local archives. If you do not know the solicitor involved, you might browse historical directories to determine solicitors in the nearby towns.
  • A search of the TNA Discovery catalogue for "executor receipt" brings up many results pertaining to various estates. Some of the records appear to have been deposited at local archives by solicitors. I suspect many of these estates were large and complex to administer. Nevertheless, executing just about any will, however small the estate, would have involved the creation of receipts and account books. Whether or not these records have survived will be variable – I suspect that in the vast majority of cases they have not.
  • If it seems appropriate, ask family members. Obviously this is not a viable option in many cases, if they might think you are intruding on private affairs or seeking to claim a share. Nevertheless, my parents have copies of estate accounts and letters from solicitors relating to wills and administrations of family members from the 1930s to the 2010s, which are invaluable in that they do describe the payments and receipts made and received by the executors or administrators. It is very possible they may be the only copies of these documents that have survived.

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