Ancestry.com Inc. (“Ancestry”), based in Utah, is the largest for-profit genealogy company in the world. In addition, subsidiaries operate in many European countries and also in Australia and Canada. A great many public records are made available through Ancestry, including: birth, death and marriage; census and voter lists; and military. Added to this immense volume of information, millions of U.S. Wills are now available at the site. (No news on whether we can expect to see Canadian Wills anytime soon).
Wills have been pulled from all 50 states and cover 300-odd years (from colonial days to recent times). Harriet Beecher Stowe, Eli Whitney and Joseph Schlitz (of Milwaukee beer fame) are among the featured testators.
This collection will be invaluable to genealogists (professional and amateur), historians and biographers. A Will can help establish family connections and flesh out a family tree (by naming a previously anonymous spouse or child, for example). The document can also provide insight into the times via the language used, value of legacies bestowed and descriptions of investment assets and of personal items. For instance, Daniel Webster bequeathed a beloved grandson a gold snuff box inscribed with the head of George Washington. Wills in which family members are cut out or left only token amounts can help fill in blanks in family histories.
As everyone who works in this business knows, a Will is much more than a “legally binding document disposing of a person’s property at their death”. Wills offer an intimate glimpse into someone’s life. Wills in which assets are bequeathed in great detail can serve as an inventory of what the testator owned or as a proxy net worth statement. Wills can reveal an individual’s interests (bequests to preferred charities) and tastes (what type of jewelry or artwork they owned) and education (“to my alma mater…”). They can tell you whether the person owned a pet and just how cherished that pet may have been (think Leona Helmsley). Wills can condemn or censure (when, for instance a child is explicitly disinherited for behaviour unacceptable to the testator). And Wills can serve as a posthumous love letter (“to my beloved…”).
Although probated Wills can be reviewed by the public in most jurisdictions, an online inventory makes the process much more accessible. I expect many an hour will be spent online peeking into the lives of both the famous and infamous, the public figures and distant family members.
One final thought: if you knew your Will would end up online for all to see, would you change anything?
Thanks for reading and Happy Labour Day!