Where There's A Will...

There's A .... Clue !

Somehow in this section on researching tips, the topic of Last Wills have not come into topic.

Wills are a truly great resource, just chock full of family information if you really know what you are searching for. At first glance, they do appear to be a great deal of mumbo jumbo in a seemingly different language or something. However, once you know what to look for and what to discard; you will see that they are really quite easy to work with.

For the most part, all Wills follow one simple basic format.

Wills are broken into sections that you will find in just about any Will you attempt to read. The names, of course, will change but the categories will always remain the same. (So, you really only have to learn this ONE time.) Below I will attempt to dissect a Will and detail what data may be found in each section. I will be disregarding all the material that is non-essential in content.


Section One-- Here you are going to find: (a) The county and state that the Will is being written in -- this giving you some clue as to where your ancestor resided at the time. This will also most likely be where the Will was filed. (b) Any specific desires that the writer has concerning his own burial (c) the date the Will was written is sometimes also contained here if not at the end of the Will. It will also state something to the effect of either: "I am of sound mind" or "being in poor health, but sound mind" -- this may give a clue as to whether your ancestor died suddenly of perhaps an epidemic or just old age (if the Will is written a long time prior to death) or if he suffered a lingering illness (when they mention being in poor health)

Before getting into this next area, it should be mentioned that in reading each bequests, especially the ones for the lands left; these normally get very detailed as far as location go and can tell you just where a family may have resided.

Section Two (often designated in the Will as Section One)-- This should be the beginning of the bequests left to the family. Typically, the "beloved wife" is listed first before any others, her name is not always listed though. Careful attention should be paid to this section as occasionally something is left "in trust" to the widow instead of to her. This action signifies that there may be a minor child involved (giving you some birth info on the children). Also included here are designations as to what is to happen to the property AFTER the death of the widow-- (which child it goes to).

The following sections will be devoted to the various children of the writer of the Will. A few items to remember when viewing these sections.

The absence of mention of a KNOWN child could mean that they are: (previously deceased); (not in good favor); or (previously taken care of).

You also want to look carefully in these sections for any references to the words "heir or heirs". Normally this denotes a deceased child. The use of the plural form of heir can mean more then one grandchild from the deceased child. When listing the female child, many times the writer of the Will lists the married name of the daughter, thus giving you information as to her husband's name.

All forms of property are bequested in the Wills such as lands, homes, slaves as well as personal items. Writers of Wills tend to get very descriptive in just what is to be done with their property perhaps after the death of the person they are giving it to. Writers of Wills also get very honest in the writing of their Wills. Family rifts can be presented in certain references such as mentions of loan to children not repaid in explanation of no bequest for that child.

The last few sections of the Will normally pertain to the Executors of the Will. These are the persons who act in probate court and make certain that all aspects of the Will are carried out to the wishes of the deceased. Normally they are sons of the deceased or close friends. This again giving some clue as to their locations if you can find these neighbors. (Giving you another avenue to trace if you are at a brick wall.) Sometimes they are son-in-laws.

The end of the Will normally carries the date it is written and the witnesses that appeared to the signing of the Will. This again providing some clues as to close associations with certain persons as these were normally friends or sons. It sometimes also lists here just when the Will was filed.

Sometimes along with a Will, you will find a mention of this Will being probated, however, this is not always present on the Will itself. It just depends on your source of the Will and if you are receiving complete probate records or just the Will.

In closing, the basic data you will find in a Will is:

Date of the Will

Health of the Writer

Residence of the writer at that time

Hopefully, name of the wife

Names of the children/grandchildren or existence of

Existence of any minor children

Properties owned and locations

Slaves owned

Economic situation of writer (by amount of items)

Name of executors/neighbors

Names of witnesses

Married names of the daughters