Where there's a will should ensure the smooth transition of possessions after the death of a family member. However this was not always the case.
The Public Record Office of Victoria has digitised many Victorian wills and probate records in its collection and made them freely available online.
National Archives (UK) via their Discovery website is also beginning to digitise wills in their collection. In Victoria these can be accessed from the State Library of Victoria website. Some Australian wills can now be accessed on Find My Past. A Google search should assist in locating whether wills and probate documents from a particular area have been digitised and are available.
Wills and probate documents can be useful resources for family history research. Wills can provide valuable information relating to a family, sometimes supplying clues which may assist further research. However not all wills are straight forward.
The intentions in the will of William Forbes Hutton, who died in 1896, were clear. Most of his land and possessions were left to his wife though he did leave a portion of the land (clearly described in the will) to two of his sons. A codicil added that the buildings and vineyard on this parcel of land were also left to the two sons. His eldest son, George, was not mentioned in the will. This confirms the belief that George was previously provided with money to assist in the purchase of a property in New South Wales. The Statement of Assets and Liabilities indicates the value of land and other assets.
When William's wife, Eleanora MacKillop, died in 1900, her will stated that the remaining family property was to be sold with the proceeds distributed between designated family members. A codicil requested that an inheritance she was about to receive should also be divided between members of her family.
Not everyone made a will of course. When John Pendergast died in 1833 he had already distributed his land among family members.
One of the challenges encountered when reading nineteenth century wills is being able to read the writing and also understand the legal terminology. The wills of William and Eleanor Hutton are relatively easy to read however I have a copy of the will of Henry Brougham Hillcoat which is written in small closely spaced writing and is almost impossible to read - a future project.
Although probaby written with the best intentions, wills could sometimes make life difficult for those left behind. John Pendergast's son, William Pendergast,
died in 1850 and left a fourteen page will detailing his plans for his
estate. Some of the land was to be kept in trust for his children until
they turned 21. The remaining land was to be sold and the money
distributed to the children once the youngest had attained 21 years. His
youngest son was one when William died. It is probable that William did
not anticipate his death arriving so close to writing his will.
Separate arrangements had previously been made for his eldest daughter.
Provisions in a will could also be challenged by family members. When the wealthy merchant and land owner, Thomas William Birch, died in Hobart in December 1821 there were complications with his will and the final sale of some of his land was delayed until 1839. The validity of the will had been questioned and the matter was taken to court to establish when and how the properties could be sold.
Provisions within a will may not have been acceptable to the general population at the time the will was written. When Simeon Lord died in 1840 his will ensured that his large family was well provided for and his wife, Mary Hyde, continued to operate much of the family business until her death in 1864. In her will Mary divided the family assets among all children, but she stipulated that property inherited by her daughters was to remain in their name and was not become the property of their husbands. Today there would be no problem with such a request however, at the time, there was no way to legally enforce this wish.
A will was therefore normally used to distribute a person's property or possessions equitably among family members after death, unless prior arrangements to individuals had previously been made. Usually the process worked smoothly unless, as we have seen, the will was contested.