Hart, R. (2016). “Where There’s a Will: Using Deceased Estate Documents to Inform Family History.” History In The Making, 2: 14–27. https://journal.historyitm.org
Is it possible to connect to people’s lives by examining the affairs of their death? When a person dies, they commonly leave an inheritance for their descendants in the form of real estate or land and buildings, and personal estate such as money, investments, goods, equipment, and personal belongings. The distribution of this estate is often, but not always, governed by a will. A will is a public, legal document intended to manage a person’s affairs after their death. It directs the disposal of real and personal estate, nominates the people responsible for handling the affairs, and makes any specific final wishes known. Although it is formulaic and bound by legal protocol, it is also unique to each testator. A will can be a very candid and private document that reveals socioeconomic status, family connections and relationships, and expose the views or personality of the deceased. Like any source, the information gleaned from these documents can vary widely, however investigating who gets what and why and under what conditions or terms can be very revealing and provide rich data for a family historian. To that end, the legacy of my great-great grandmother Hannah Jane Watts and her daughter Catherine Jane Hogg will be examined. Death certificates, wills, and deceased estate files will be used to examine the distribution of wealth within the family, and unpack the meanings behind testamentary dispositions, whereby Hannah and Catherine reveal different aspects of family relationships.