WILLS Info. - Rlugowski
Subject: WILLS Info.
From: Rlugowski
Date: March 08, 2001

From OnBoard - Newsletter of the BCG
Volume 1, Number 2 (May 1995) 

Of all the documents we hope to find on people of the past, wills can be the 
most informative and the most misleading. 

Far less rigid in form and content than deeds, licenses, or bonds, wills 
offer their authors the opportunity to express themselves, their 
personalities, and their preferences and prejudices. But a willâ€(tm)s informality 
and latitude, clouded by changing customs and lexicology, can lead to 
misinterpretations and missed clues. 
As we analyze a will for latent clues, the following questions are prime: 
Is the will an “original” or a recorded copy? If it is an original on loose 

does it bear the testatorâ€(tm)s signature or mark? An actual signature or a 
distinctive mark should be preserved in our notes. Matched with others 
elsewhere, it is vital to sorting identities.

does the text flow smoothly from the bottom of one page to the top of the 
next? Does the handwriting match throughout? Loose papers are more easily 
pilfered or altered. Sheets can be removed or replacedâ€"by heirs who donâ€(tm)t 
like the terms of the original or by descendants seeking to hide information 
or “prove” certain points. 
If the will is a clerkâ€(tm)s recorded copy: 

has the original been preserved? Check it to eliminate the possibility of a 
copying error and (possibly) obtain signatures for testator and witnesses. 
Does the will begin with an oath? (e.g.: “In the name of God, Amen . . . .”) 
If so, the testator was not Quaker or did not belong to a similar religious 
body that eschewed oath-taking. 

Are “infants” or minors mentioned? If so: 

the estate may not have been settled until the last reached adulthood. 
Probates and court records should be checked for at least two decades. 
Children over fourteen might later sue for a change of guardian. Newly adult 
sons and husbands of newlywed daughters often sued for possession of 
inherited property or money. 
Also remember: 

“infants” might have been on the verge of adulthood. Legally, the term only 
meant that the person was a minor.

children “of tender age” were commonly under the age of fourteen. 

Was education willed for children prior to the mid-1800s? Outside the 
Northeast, mid-to-older teens were not likely to be schooled unless the 
family was elite. 

Does one heir receive only a token? Donâ€(tm)t assume that heir was “written out” 
of the will. Check conveyances and tax records to see if he or her husband 
received property in advance. If testator refers to such prior bequests, 
again check conveyances and property rolls. 

Does a grandchild receive a special share? If of same surname, this is likely 
the child of a deceased son or an unmarried daughter. Grandparental wills 
often favored such children because they lacked a male provider. 

Does testator state relationships to certain people? Those terms can mislead. 
Sons/daughters-in-law may be step-children. Sisters/brothers may be in-laws. 
Cousins may be any relationship past the first degree. Nephew may be 

Does the will mention debts, property, or beneficiaries in another region? 
This may be a clue to prior residence or origins. 

Are slaves manumitted? Significance can depend upon age and color of those 
freed, religious affiliation of testator, or whether testator has a living 
wife or descendants. If a master freed all slaves or willed they be freed 
after the death of his spouse, then religious scruples may be at work. If he 
freed slave children, particularly when calling them mulatto and citing their 
mother as Negro (most particularly if he names no wife in his will) then 
kinship may exist. If a slave couple or elderly slave is freed, long-term 
service is more likely to be the motivation. 

Slave names may also suggest other relatives of the testator, since the given 
names of slaves often duplicated those within the masterâ€(tm)s family. 

In general: 

pursue all witnesses, but remember: witnesses could not be heirs.

verify recording; check court actions to see whether will was contested.

do not assume a named wife to be mother of the named children.

if any heir bears the name of the person whose parents we seek, we must still 
prove these are one and the same people. 

â€"Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL 

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