Beyond the Internet: Week 22 Wills and Intestacies

Beyond the Internet

This is Week 22 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. This week the topic is wills and intestacies. I’d love it if you would join in and either comment or post on your experiences with wills around the world.

Before we go much further I need to put in a disclaimer: I am not an expert in wills. Try as I will (pardon the pun), but I forever feel I’m out of my depth with the legal aspects of the process of wrapping up an estate.  That over, let’s bite the bullet and get on with it. Today the focus is on the will itself, and next week we’ll move to the other probate documents and deceased estates.

My guess is that wills are high on the hunting list for most family historians. We long to see our ancestor’s signature and know how he/she distributed his worldly belongings. Of course the downside is that we tend to assume that if we know our ancestors were working class people, that they won’t have anything to dispense, and so they’ll have left no will for us to unearth. It’s equally likely that they may have omitted to write a will through neglect or delayed intentions, and that the value of their estate means there will be letters of administration or intestacies. Both areas need searching, and both can be valuable.

No doubt it’s for this reason that many archives make indexing their will collection a priority, and other indexes are also online (you might need to search for ecclesiastical files). This summary from the State Library of Queensland is useful for Australian sources. Along with the wills held in the public records offices you may find other documents, too, such as copies of the person’s death notice (cheaper to get a photocopy or photograph than to order the certificate).

One piece of advice that I would give when dealing with wills is to first make a copy or two. If it’s an old will I might also transcribe it, for ease of reading later on. With a really complex will I’ve made my own summary as well (not a straight transcription), analysing what’s in the will.

With your copy I would split your investigations into two parts:

  1. Highlight or document the different bequests in the will: the charities or individuals that have been chosen to receive money. Also make note of the executors’ names. You may recognise many of them straight away, but you will want to investigate the potential relationships of others. It’s probably a good time to warn of not making assumptions.
  2. Highlight other aspects of the will: there are clues there that may provide future research paths –not always, but don’t just blip over the background bits and shine the light only on the beneficiaries.

It’s worth noting that not all wills find their way into the archives. Depending on the value of the estate, the will may remain with the relevant solicitor. The person may also have passed on the major part of their estate prior to death. For example, my 2xgreat grandfather George Mathias Kunkel sold his land and property to his youngest son about six years before his death. I suspect that it came with an unofficial agreement that George and his wife Mary would continue to live with them. Once again he’d used Michael O’Sullivan, solicitor of Toowoomba for the land transaction and I suspect this is where his will would have been as well.  Queensland State Archives provides a useful guide here.

Wills can vary from the simplest to the complex: a simple “I leave all my worldly wealth to my wife/family” through to a multi-page document with complicated provisions. In my own collection I have both types and a few between. And then as you go back through the centuries you reach those ones written in secretary hand (another of my weak points). What I find intriguing about those is the prelude in religious language, making provision for their interment and submitting their souls to God.

When I was researching East Clare emigrants, I ordered the LDS film of Limerick District Wills. Some of these wills provided interesting insights, not just to the intra-family inheritances and dynamics, but also to emigration decisions. For example, Michael McNamara of Kilfenora, West Clare, made provision for £20 to be inherited by his eldest son “in the event of his being emigrating (sic) to some foreign land such as America or Australia”,[1] while Henry and Pierce Nihil, were left a share of their mother’s “house property land stock money furniture etc” if they “should ever return from Australia” but no provision was made for them if they remained overseas.[2]  I did feel sorry for the poor man who had obviously done too good a job of promoting his successes in his new land: the father left him his love and a blessing from afar.

One of the things I like about using a microfilm or original record is that serendipity lets you find odds and ends that you’ll never find if you only search for a specific name. You may find so much more than you bargained for.

What are your experiences with wills and intestacies? Have you made any astonishing discoveries as a result? Have I made any mistakes here? If so please do let me know so it can be corrected. 


[1] Will of 6 July 1876, Limerick District Wills 1876-1888, Microfilm 100947,Church ofJesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. However he too only leaves money to his other son, who was “presently out of the country” should he “again return”.

[2] Will of Honora Nihil, of Killaloe, Barony of Tulla, Clare. Dated 18 August 1877.  Limerick District Wills 1876-1888, Microfilm 100947, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. Honora Nihil of Killaloe, Lower Tulla, left all her “world house property land stock money furniture etc” to her daughter, Eliza, but if her two brothers[2] “Henry and Pierce should ever return from Australia all is to be divided equally” or “if only one returns, then he is to get 1/3” and “Eliza to have the remaining 2/3”.  Henry and Pierce arrived in Australia on the Maitland in 1856. Henry appears to have died in Sydney in 1905. (NSW Births Deaths and Marriages indexes 11468/1905). John also died in Sydney (NSW BDM 11944/1989). Neither appears to have married. 

Family History Alphabet: D is for dedication, determination and discernment

Family History AlphabetAlona Tester from Gould Genealogy has proposed a Family History through the Alphabet series over the coming 26 weeks. I decided that my theme would be the Attributes we need as family historians: the skills, experience and talents you bring to your research. We’ve reached the letter D already and here are my nominations:

D is for dedication: the marriage of devotion or love, belief and commitment to this adventure that you’re on.

D is for determination: the need to push beyond the first (or umpteenth) stumbling block and keep researching, coming back for more.

D is for discernment (aka blarney detector): the ability to weed out facts from fantasy, to weigh up the merits of a story and determine how it might be proven/invalidated, and to know it needs to be. The ability and/or skill to weigh up data from different sources and determine their consistency and validity, and to know it needs to be.

What attributes starting with the letter D would you add?

Most achievers I know are people who have made a strong and deep dedication to pursuing a particular goal. That dedication took a tremendous amount of effort. Donald Johanson, an archaeologist.[i]

Follow Friday – a diversion from family history

Following in Geniaus’s footsteps from last week, I thought I’d share a list of my favourite blogs beyond family history (though some do venture into that territory). Why don’t you have a look and see if any of them appeal to you as well.

I read them for their different perspectives, an insight into their worlds and their well written posts. A baker’s dozen of authors.

52 Suburbs (An Aussie on the move around the world, looking for the unusual, great photos juxtaposed in a way that most people wouldn’t think of. Thanks Crissouli for this tip-off).

A Big Life (by an Aussie expat in Bavaria)

A Voice from the Silver Irish (love these posts about life in Ireland and its history, with occasional forays into Australian links)

Antipodes (yet another Aussie-this one in France. Some family history, some often-acerbic commentaries on life)

Broadside (a professional writer from Canada but long-term New Yorker)

Essex Voices Past (an in-depth study of Great Dunmow, Essex in the 15th to 17th centuries. This is a great blog if you want to learn how to approach a one-place study in a particular time frame, the resources that may be available and how to interpret them.)

French Essence (can’t believe I somehow omitted this today. A great series- yet another Aussie –living in France. To-die-for photos of life in Provence. Can happily leave the fashion, but the Provencal influences are another story).

Matteo Grilli Wildlife Art (superbly detailed drawings –an Italian in Australia)

No More Wriggling out of Writing Woman (about the poet Keats, mental illness and related matters)

Sydney Eye (great photos of Sydney with interesting commentary)

The Magpie’s Pen and the Magpie’s Fancy (writing, design, life)

Your Brisbane: Past and Present (interesting for anyone with connections to Brisbane)

I’ve also recently started reading View from the Teapot about life in France and Fat Dormouse Getting Thinner. Alison who writes both blogs is my exchange mate in the Faith Hope and Charity Jubilee Swap and as luck would have it we’re both mad cat lovers We’ve both been working on our gift package and I’m hoping to get mine off to Alison today. It’s been fun picking stuff up to send to Alison and it will be fun to see what everyone comes up with. Fingers crossed Alison likes what I’ve found for her. Thanks Julie for bringing this fun activity to my notice.

Carnival of Genealogy 118th edition: Reading

How could I possibly ignore this month’s Carnival of Genealogy topic of reading. Jasia has posed the following questions:

Do you come from a family of readers? What kinds of reading material was typically found around your house when you were growing up… fiction books, comic books, poetry, the Bible, magazines, cookbooks, prayer books??? What do you like to read now? Do you give books as gifts? Are you a fan of eBooks? The lazy, hazy days of summer are right around the corner and many of us will be reaching for a good book to read on the hammock or on the beach. What do you recommend?”

Reading with my grandmother while Granddad watches on.

When you walk into someone’s house for the first time, do you have to contain your curiosity about what’s on their book shelves? Do you think twice, mentally reviewing the trust-worthiness of the person in front of you, before you lend a treasured book? Do you look at pictures of houses and living rooms without a book in sight and wonder what’s wrong with the people who live there? If so I suspect that, like me, you have an incurable illness called readeritis.

Actually I don’t come from a family of readers – my reading gene comes from my father. Mum was always too active to sit and read other than her evening prayer books. My own children learnt early that reading was as important to me as food and drink. Luckily I married a man who understands that once my nose is in a book and I have the reading bit between my teeth, there’ll be little point in trying to get my attention until I finish the final page. Many’s the night I’ve gone to bed because I’m tired, only to be still awake hours later finishing my book.

Al fresco reading -I’m surprised I looked up given how close how little of the book was left to read.

As a child I envied a neighbouring family who had one small glass-fronted bookcase. I loved being taken by them in their car to the local library which was inaccessible by public transport. Heaven was going to high school with its diverse smorgasbord of books and I was a virtual glutton as I gobbled them up. Being at high school in the city I was also able to join the School of Arts where I had a wide array of fiction to choose from and developed a teenage devotion to Seventeen magazine which opened my eyes to life as a teenager in America.  Books were compulsory items on my birthday and Christmas wish lists and I was never happier than when I got a new book I’d been hoping for, or indeed any new book. With Christmas and birthday both falling in the midst of the long summer school holidays, there was every opportunity to find a shady, cooler spot to sit and read. This habit of books as gifts is an engrained part of our family’s tradition and our grandchildren already have a severe dose of the reading virus. Even the three year old takes his book to his bed for the afternoon quiet time/nap.

Reading a pop-up book with our daughter one Xmas.

It is a case of “be careful what you wish for” as we try to contain my book collection to the available bookcases in the house. Like coat-hangers they seem to multiply so that no matter how many you give away, the bookshelves are still overflowing.  This is one of the reasons that I’ve turned to e-books for some of my reading. I’ve been surprised to discover that I can get just as engrossed turning the virtual pages as I did with the real thing. I was amused recently when I rang my hairdressing salon. The person who answered turned to my own hairdresser and said “it’s Pauleen, who reads the little book (iPad)”. They seem to find it a tad strange that I sit there, colour on my greying hair, reading blogs or books on my iPad.  What else would I do, I ask?

My obsession with family history has affected my obsession with books so that now I read more and more reference books or historical books. My reading-for-relaxation has changed from fiction to blog-reading with occasional bouts of midnight mania when I get into a good book.  Over the past few weeks I’ve been revisiting some Australian books from my Insights into Australia post.   So far I’ve read A Town Like Alice, The True Story of the Kelly Gang, Harland’s Half Acre and They’re a Weird Mob and I’ve started on Foreign Correspondence.

To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries. A C Grayling, Financial Times” (in a review of A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel) [i]