Many researchers hunt high and low for a will believing it will answer all of their questions and find themselves disappointed. Before we begin, remember, the overwhelming number of wills written prior to 1900 were done by men. So this blog will be slanted toward those wills. However, if the widow had property that was hers in her own right, then you may find her wills as well.
Let’s start with the fact that the vast majority of deaths of a parent, particularly a father were intestate. Intestate means, without a valid will. The cause for this varies greatly. Whether it is because they died suddenly without any warning or they died owning nothing of real value, no will was written. Additionally, there are all the courthouse disasters causing the loss of records.
So what do we look for when a will does not exist? We look to see if there was sufficient property, real and personal, worthy of probate and an administrator being appointed. This is particularly true if minor children or an adult child were needing special care existed and the courts or the family wanted to make sure they were taken care of. So look for letters of administration or twelve-month support.
If a will does exist, will it answer all of your questions? Probably not. Many men listed only the names of their minor children and may or may not appoint a grown son to act as executor or co-executor. I recently read one that leads me to believe he had a daughter with special needs because he set up the equivalent of a trust for her lifetime care and comfort.
You might also find wills where the married daughters are not listed with their married names or husbands’ names listed. This, along with calling a daughter by their nickname, make it difficult to further track them. I recently worked a case like this where the youngest daughter is only referred to as, Polly. If she was really Mary Ann, then she was married but the will does not help make that connection and no known document has been located to prove that Polly and Mary Ann are the same person.
Another mistake I find quite common is when there is language in the will that gives a hint that his wife at the time of his death was not the only wife he had and may not be the biological mother to all of his children. Yet, researchers often make that mistake, and thus his second wife would have been 9 years old when giving birth to the first child. By the same token, do not assume that just because the name of his wife in the will is different than what you find on other legal documents that it indicates a second wife. It could be something as simple as he refers to his by a nickname or his pet name for her and the legal documents use her legal name. Everyone on this planet knows my sister by the name of Beth. But that is not her true name, it is a nickname for her middle name. Instead of going by her first name, she has made her legal name, D. Elizabeth.
The last thing I want to point out about wills is, to look for the date it was proved. That means, it was brought into the courthouse, after the testator died, and presented to the court to be legally entered. While in rare cases, wills were previously filed, if more than one can be found, it is the one just in front of the file being “proven.” If there is a huge difference between the date the will was signed and when it was proven, they most likely died closer to the date proven.
One last piece of advice, do not get your hopes up too high on finding a will to resolve all of your questions.