6 tips for tracing your family tree using wills

Can you trace your family tree using wills? Neil Fraser, partner at probate research firm Fraser & Fraser, offers 6 handy hints to help you to do just that.

When writing your will, you’ll most likely be doing it for the benefit of your family, making the decisions about where your money, property and possessions will go after your death. But have you ever thought about your family to come – your future descendants, whose family tree branches won’t grow for some time yet? It could help them, too.

As information-rich sources, wills can be a handy tool when trying to discover your family tree, helping you to work both backwards and forwards in the search for ancestors and descendants. Often giving away far more information than a birth, death or marriage certificate, wills can help to push your research on leaps and bounds, speeding up the process.

Here are the 6 most useful tips and tricks often used in genealogical research:

1. Using a will to confirm your previous research

Death certificates do not always state enough information to confirm that you are looking at the correct person. Middle names can be missed altogether or initialised, making the search for your ancestors that much harder. A will can provide the full name of the deceased and whereabouts before death to help confirm your research steps. You can also identify the correct people for your family tree.

2. The beneficiaries are the biggest clue

The heirs to someone’s estate can help to speed up your research process immensely. Spouses and children are usually mentioned, as well as those married into the family, such as the wife of the brother, as well as the brother himself and their children. This can help you to plot down new branches to your family tree much quicker than relying on certificates. It can also confirm previous research.

3. Discover the married names of daughters

A common stumbling block is discovering the married name of a woman – it can seem as though they disappear off the census and become untraceable by their maiden name. Wills are a great source to finding the marriage, which can help move your research forward considerably.

4. An insight into the relationships between your ancestors

Wills often include a flavour of your ancestor’s personality, as well as the many family relationships. The will of one man discovered during Fraser & Fraser’s research explained he had a health condition which meant he had to often ‘break wind’. His wife, however, was not particularly forgiving of this, and so as punishment, he almost excluded her from his will, leaving her just a penny.

5. Understand the living conditions of the past

Older wills often include much more information than we see nowadays, perhaps down to the fact that they had much larger families, or because they were often more concerned with passing on possessions. For instance, it’s unlikely to see today someone leaving ‘the entire contents of their living room’ to a family member.

6. Burial requests can be a key source

It is quite common for wills to state the deceased’s chosen funeral or burial arrangements, which can give clues to family history. For instance, a request made to be buried next to their mother could lead you to a different city or county, or perhaps another country, which could lead to further inquiries and discoveries.

About the author

Neil Fraser is one of 3 partners at Fraser & Fraser. Having worked in the business nearly 20 years, he is a key figure on BBC One’s Heir Hunters, and specialises in matters of probate research.