A will is a person’s written wishes for the disposal of his or her personal or real property. If a will specifically concerns personal property, it may be called a testament. Wills about real property are called devises. Wills may be of any length and vary in content from person to person, and many individuals die without wills but have intestate probates.

Information on wills could include

  • Names of spouse, children, additional relatives (including children’s spouses) or friends
  • Age
  • Personal wealth
  • Land holdings and use
  • Family dynamics
  • Names and disposition of slaves

States approach will registration and storage in a variety of ways. Some register wills within the probate court, county, or superior court. Many states, such as North Carolina, transfer wills to their state archives whereas others retain the originals in their county archives. Facility rules and fees for examining and duplicating wills vary, and genealogists are recommended to contact an employee in advance of a visit. Some researchers also use online services which provide scanned or transcribed (typed) wills for a fee. The Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources provides detailed information about these primary resources for each state.

The Appalachian Collection owns microfilmed copies of Appalachian North Carolina court records, including probate records and wills.

Other sources of information for death dates, real estate transfers, and daily life include church records, death certificates, estate probates, mortality censuses, and the Social Security Administration’s Master Death File. Several on-line sites, such as www.rootweb.com and www.ancestry.com, publish this information for free or for a fee.

Reading handwriting can be difficult particularly because previous generations used different symbols than are currently used. The library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill maintains a Writing Guide for researchers reading documents dating from the 18th century forward. For those researching European handwriting styles, Great Britain’s National Archives has “Palaeography: Reading Old Handwriting, 1500 - 1800: A Practical Online Tutorial” and Brigham Young University maintains Script Tutorials for Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.

For more reading

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, 1974. (App Coll CS 45.G73)

Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006. (App Coll CS 49.S65)

State-wide Resources

Austin, Jeannette Holland. Index to Georgia Wills. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1985 (F285.A9 1985)

Magruder, James Mosby. Index of Maryland Colonial Wills, 1634-1777, in the Hall of Records, Annapolis, Md. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1967. (F180.M23 1967)

Mitchell, Thornton W. North Carolina Wills: A Testator Index, 1665-1900. Raleigh, N.C.: T.W. Mitchell, 1987. (App Coll F253.M57 1987, vol. 1&2)

King, Junie Estelle Stewart. Abstract of Early Kentucky Wills and Inventories, Copied from Original and Recorded Wills and Inventories. Baltimore: Genealogical Publ. Co., 1961. (F450.K56 1961)

Cotton, Jane Baldwin. The Maryland Calendar of Wills. Westminster, MD: Family Line Pub., 1988-1995. (F180.C853 1988) 16 vol.

Houston, Martha Lou. Indexes to the County Wills of South Carolina. Baltimore, MD: Clearfield, 1994. (F268.S66 1994)

Virginia Will Records: From the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the William and Mary College Quarterly, and Tyler’s Quarterly. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1982. (F225.V94 1982)

Torrence, Clayton. Virginia Wills and Administrations, 1632-1800; An Index of Wills Recorded in Local Courts of Virginia, 1632-1800, and of Administrations on Estates Shown by Inventories of the Estates of Intestates recorded in Will (and Other) Books of Local Courts, 1632-1800. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1965 (F225.T85 1972)

McFarland, K. T. H. Early West Virginia Wills. Apollo, PA: Closson Press, 1993. (F240.M43 1993)