A will is essentially a legal document in which a person records their last wishes before they die and describes the rights of others over their property after their death. A person making a will (known as a testator) either signs it personally or by someone in his presence and at his direction. Although anyone can make a will, provided they are of sound mind, only a small proportion of the population in the 19th century made wills and married women rarely made wills before 1882.
A will is more properly termed a ‘last will and testament’ - the will dealt with land and buildings and a testament with any sort of property eg money, furniture, stock etc. The person making the will is referred to as the testator while those who are left goods and property in a will are known as beneficiaries and those who are appointed to administer the terms of the will (ie to carry out the wishes of the testator as laid down in the will) are known as executors. Because beneficiaries are nearly always relatives of the testator and executors can often be relatives as well you can extract from a will many family details. It is possible for a person to amend their will at any time or several time – these amendments are known as codicils which have to be separately dated and attested in the same way as a will.
Wills only take effect after the person dies and after they have been proved in court ie a grant of probate has been issued. The grant of probate authenticates the will and gives the executors the power to administer the estate. Probate can take weeks, months or even years.
As well as wills you will come across ‘letters of administration with will annexed’ and ‘letters of administration’. A grant of letters of administration with will annexed is issued where the will did not specify any executors or the executors were unable to carry out the terms of the will or renounced their intention to do so or they had died. If a person dies without making a will he is described as ‘intestate’; in this case the court can grant ‘letters of administration’ which appoints administrators to administer the estate of the intestate. Letters of administration are sometimes referred to as ‘admons’.