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Where there's a will, there's a way to snoop - Liz Hodgkinson

Features | By Liz Hodgkinson


Access any will, any time for just £1.50

The act of ‘reading the will’ has long been a dramatic staple in fiction and film, where tense family members gather in front of a stern solicitor to discover what, if anything, they have been left.

Now anybody can read anybody’s will for only £1.50. All you have to know is the year of death, and then the online forms do the rest. It’s really exciting when somebody’s will pings into your inbox – and they all make fascinating reading. As well as revealing how much they left and to whom, they are a snapshot of the testator’s personality, attitudes and outlook.

I started ordering wills when I was trying to trace somebody and had drawn a blank everywhere. Once I was able to access the will of this person’s mother, I had all the information I needed to track him down. And then I became hooked on reading wills and started ordering them in industrial amounts out of pure curiosity – or nosiness, you might say.

You don’t have to be a relative or friend to access a will. Once probate is granted, it goes into the public domain. You can order wills dating back to 1858 and they usually take only two or three days to arrive. It does feel a bit like prying into people’s deepest, darkest secrets but it is all perfectly legal.

Once you download a will, it remains available for 31 days, after which it disappears. But if you want to hang on to it, you can print it and it is yours for ever.

Some wills, it’s true, are couched in dense legalese, and can be hard to decipher. But even these tell you so much, once you crack the code. Did the deceased leave anything to charities? If so, which ones? Did they remember their gardener, carer or cleaner? Did they endow their old school or university? Did they cut any family member out or try to exert control from beyond the grave? Was there any favouritism, such as in leaving more to one child than to another? Did they set up a trust fund? Was there a secret love child? An affair? A long-running family feud?

Wills can disclose all of this, giving you insights you never suspected when the person was alive. Some are lengthy, itemising everything right down to the gold cigarette case, whereas others consist of just a few short sentences.

One will I read made it a condition that the intended beneficiary convert to the Jewish faith. Another person, I was astonished to discover, left her entire wealth, amounting to a surprising £400,000, to her estate agent. As she had about 30 cats, it seemed odd that she didn’t make provision for them in her will or leave anything to a cat charity.

One woman left everything, including her sports car, to the lover who had dumped her. Her family were horrified, but there was nothing they could do about it.

Wills reflect the times in which they were drawn up. In one will I read, there was a bequest of a mink coat and an ermine coat to the testator’s stepdaughter. Once highly prized, such coats are now worth nothing.

If you ever wonder what happened to somebody’s estate, wonder no more. Just go to probatesearch.service.gov.uk to follow the ultimate money trail.


This story was from August 2020 issue. Subscribe Now