How to look for records of... Death duties 1796-1903

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1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide to help to find a death duty entry in the registers from 1796-1903.

This guide will also tell you:

  • what death duties are and what information the registers contain
  • common abbreviations used in the records
  • how to interpret death duty registers

Before 1858 wills in England and Wales were proved in a variety of church courts. As well as directing you to an entry in the death duty registers, the death duty index entries in IR 27 may also tell you where a will was proved.

The National Archives only holds wills proved by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. If you want to find a will read our research guide on wills and probate records.

2. What are death duties?

The term ‘death duties’ refers to three taxes:

  • legacy duty
  • succession duty
  • estate duty

The death duty registers are in records series IR 26.  Death duty was introduced in 1796, and death duty registers were created by the courts to record details of estates on which these taxes were due. They cover the period 1796 to 1903.

Larger courts might have a number of registers for each year smaller courts might have one register covering more than one year.

3. What information may I find in a death duty entry?

The records can show:

  • what happened to someone’s personal estate (not freehold) after death
  • what the estate was worth, excluding debts and expenses
  • the name of the deceased, with address and last occupation
  • the place and date of probate
  • the names, addresses and occupations of the executors
  • details of estates, legacies, trustees, legatees and annuities
  • the duty paid

They may also give the date of death and information about the beneficiaries. Family relationships were often noted because close relations didn’t have to pay duties on their inheritance.

Notes were sometimes made on the registers many years after the first entry. They recorded details such as:

  • date of death of spouse
  • date of death or marriage of beneficiaries
  • births of posthumous children and grandchildren
  • change of address
  • references to law suits
  • cross references to other entries

Before 1812 the registers include very brief abstracts of wills. From 1857 there are entries in death duty registers for all estates worth more than £20. However those worth less than £1500 didn’t have the taxes collected and not much was recorded about them.

4. How do I search for the records?

Some records are available to view online. If you do not know what type of death duty you are looking for, follow the guidance for searching in 4.1 and 4.2.

Where records are not available online the process involved in finding a death duty register can be complicated. You need to identify the right one according to:

  • the court that created it
  • the year the will was proved or letter of administration was granted
  • the initial letter of the surname

4.1 How to search for country court death duties, 1796-1811

Between 1796 and 1811 each church probate court was indexed separately. Courts other than the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are collectively known as the ‘country courts’ and you can view the registers online, though not all of these survive. If you cannot locate an entry, you may be able to find details the specimen death duty accounts in records series IR 19.

4.2 Finding death duty indexes and registers using our catalogue, 1796-1903

The death duty indexes are available online in records series IR 27. Consult the index to obtain the folio number; this will enable you to locate the document reference and the entry in the registers in IR 26.

There are three steps to finding the right register:

Step 1: Search and view the indexes to the registers in IR 27

Go to (£) and search by surname and year (you are searching within IR 27, which contains the indexes to the death duty registers in record series IR 26).

From your results, identify the index entry for the person you’re searching for. Your search results will indicate the courts that created the index, whether it was a will or administration, and the year it was proved or granted.

Step 2: Find a folio or an entry number in IR 27

Once you have found the entry, look for a number written next to it.

From 1796 to 1811 there will be an ‘entry number’ and in later indexes a ‘folio number’. Note down this number as it will help you to identify which is the right death duty register in IR 26. An index entry with no folio reference means that no tax was payable, in which case there will be no death duty record.

Step 3: Search our catalogue to find the relevant death duty register in IR 26

The registers are organised alphabetically by first letter of surname, but they are in ranges – such as L to N – so searching for M won’t yield any search results. Similarly, the registers are organised by ranges of folio numbers, such as 251-500, so searching for a specific folio number won’t be effective either.

Use the advanced search option in our catalogue and enter details as follows:

  • enter the keyword ‘will’ or ‘administration’, according to which you found in the indexunder ‘date range’ enter the year in which the will was proved or the administration granted
  • under ‘search within’ enter the document series reference IR 26

You may get a number of search results. Identify the one with the correct alphabetical range and range of folio numbers. This will be the death duty register you’re searching for.

Entries in the registers that may lead to other registers or records:

  • References like RR/41/J/12 refer to ‘reversionary registers’, which may be worth examining if the estate you are researching had any of its parts left in trust before 1852. You can browse these descriptions in our catalogue; there are only 11 files. Click on ‘details’ to see the folio range that each covers
  • a reference like RA 767/46 1 LD refers to ‘residuary accounts’ (in this example 767 refers to the folio number and 46 refers to the year 1846). Most of these have been destroyed, although a few survive in IR 19. To find them, use the advanced search option in our catalogue. Enter the keyword ‘will’ or ‘administration’ and the relevant year, and ‘search within’ IR 19. There are some residuary accounts relating to well-known people in IR 59. To find them, use the advanced search option and search he series by name within IR 59
  • a reference like SA 85/120 refers to succession duty registers. To find them, use the advanced search option in our catalogue. Enter the phrase ‘succession registers’, the relevant year and in ‘search for or within references’ IR 26. Find the file for the right letter and folio range
  • a reference like Lr  234/16 (number 234 letter for the year 1816) refers to in-letters to the Legacy Duty Office and copies of out-letters in IR 6 which survive for the years 1812 to 1836 only. You can search by year within IR 6 and find the document reference with the relevant range of letter numbers (please note IR 6 documents are stored offsite and take three working days to produce)

Some registers are on microfilm or are original documents. To view these you need to either visit us at Kew or order copies.

If you can’t find an entry, see our section on why can’t I find an entry?

5. Other records associated with legacy duties

The following records series also contain records relating to death duties:

  • IR 19 specimen death duty accounts
  • IR 59 death duty accounts for well-known people; some of these records are closed to the public. Where this is the case the catalogue description will explain how to request access to the record under the Freedom of Information Act 2001
  • IR 6 correspondence on contentious cases
  • IR 7 correspondence on contentious cases for Scotland
  • IR 49 and IR 50 contentious cases reported to the Treasury
  • IR 67 legacy, succession and probate duty case books
  • IR 62 precedent files. Files with piece numbers 1-1050 are not kept at Kew and will need to be ordered three days before you plan to visit
  • IR 98/1-9, IR 98/30-31 death duties cases
  • IR 99 solicitors’ opinions and reports relating to death duties cases. Files with piece numbered 1-170 are not kept at Kew and will need to be ordered three days before you plan to visit
  • E 188 miscellaneous petitions relating to appeals against Inland Revenue assessments for estate or succession duty

6. Why can’t I find an entry?

There are a number of reasons why you might not find a death duty entry:

  • Many of the registers for the 1890s were destroyed by fire
  • Less valuable estates were often exempt from death duty. From 1858 there should be a record for all estates worth more than £20, but not from before that date
  • From 1796 bequests to children, spouses, parents and grandparents were not taxable. In 1805 this exemption was reduced to spouse and parents, and from 1815 only bequests to the spouse were exempt
  • From 1903 onwards only selected files survive; they are in record series IR 59 and all relate to well-known people
  • Death duties were not paid on a person’s estate if they died as a result of wounds or disease during active service in the armed forces
  • The starting date of a small number of country court registers is between 1800 and 1805, and not 1796

For information on the history and arrangement of death duty registers read the ‘description’ and ‘arrangement’ sections of the notes for records series IR 26 in our catalogue.

7. Records in other archives

Copies of wills from the major local probate courts in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset were sent to the respective local archives. See the Somerset Heritage Centre website for more information about the wills they hold.

You can also search our catalogue for records held elsewhere. Refine your results using the filters.

8. Interpreting the registers

The registers changed over time. The table below takes a register from 1837 as an example, and indicates what each column means, and what you can expect to find in it.

First set of column headings
1-2 Name and date also address and date of death
3 Date of will
4 Executors
5-6 Residence residence of executors
7-8 Description occupation/rank of executors
9-13 Where and when proved court and date at which the will was provedSample abbreviations used
ArchCt/Totnes/archd’on = Archdeaconry court of Totnes
BishCt/Lichfield / = Bishop’s (consistory) court of Lichfield
ConCt/London = Consistory court of London
ConstEpic/Wells = Episcopal Consistory Court of Bath & Wells
Deans/Lichfield = Dean and Chapter of Lichfield
Ecclesi/St Albans = Archdeaconry of St Albans
ExCt/York = Exchequer court of the Archbishop of York
PC/Cant.y = Prerogative court of Canterbury
PecuC/Biggleswade = Peculiar court of Biggleswade
RuralD/Chester = Rural Dean of Chester
14 Sum sworn under approximate value of the total estate


Second set of column headings
1 Legacies description of size and types of items bequeathed in the willAbbreviations used
annych’d on R and P Est = annuity charged on real and personal estate
chgd = charged
3 P C Cons = 3% Consols
3 P C Red = 3% Reduced bank annuities
2 Observations notes on the legacies or other information for the purposes of estimating duty payable
3 To whom in trust to whom estate is entrusted, i.e. the executors
the date of codicils to the will in which various legacies are bequeathedAbbreviations used
exors = executors
4 For what purpose what is to be done with the legacy;
into how many portions it is to be divided,
upon what conditions legatees are entitled to it,
whether the legacies have to be converted into certain forms for payment, etc.
5 Legatee to whom the legacies are dueAbbreviations used
Resy Legatee = residuary legatee (i.e. the legatee who receives the remainder of the estate once the claims of the other legatees have been satisfied)
6 Consanguinity relationship of the legatee to the deceased for the purposes of calculating the rate of duty payable on the legacyAbbreviations used – see separate table, below
7 Upon what contingency or, if in succession, of equal rate upon what conditions the legacies are bequeathed and procedures to be followed when the legatee dies – i.e. does the legacy pass to the legatee’s heirs or to other defined persons?Abbreviations used – see separate table, below
8 What deemed the form of the bequest; whether an absolute gift or an annuity and whether there are any contingency clauses to the bequestAbbreviations used
abs = absolute legacy (i.e. no strings attached)
abs & int = absolute and interest
abswp = absolute legacy with a proviso (conditional grant)
anny = annuity
anny wp = annuity with a proviso (conditional annuity)
dwp = ditto (usually absolute) with a proviso
in deft of appt eqy amg them = in default of apportionment equally among them
Columns 9-14 These columns sometimes contain no information, presumably because duty was never paid or because there were insufficient assets to pay for legacies. In place of such information is often a reference such as ‘RA 767/46 1 LD’ which refers to ‘residuary accounts’. These have been destroyed, although a few still survive in IR 19 and IR 59.
9 Age of annuitant age of the annuitant; given in some cases only
10 Value of annuities and bequests value of actual bequests received by legatees or total value of annuities as computed for paying duty
11 Rate of duty percentage of bequest or annuity to be paid as duty according to degree of consanguinity
12 Date of payment date when payments of duty took place
13 Annuity instalments value of instalments of duty paid on annuities – there were usually four such payments
14 Total duty total duty paid on legacy
Abbreviations used in column 6 of the 2nd headings: consanguinity
BF brother of a father (uncle)
BM brother of a mother (uncle)
Child or Ch child of deceased
DB descendant of a brother (niece, nephew, etc.)
DS descendant of a sister (niece, nephew, etc.)
DBF descendant of a brother of a father (i.e. cousin)
DBM descendant of a brother of a mother (i.e. cousin)
DSF descendant of a sister of a father (i.e. cousin)
DSM descendant of a sister of a mother (i.e. cousin)
DBGF descendant of a brother of a grandfather
DBGM descendant of a brother of a grandmother
DSGF descendant of a sister of a grandfather
DSGM descendant of a sister of a grandmother
G child grandchild
GG child great-grandchild
G daughter grand-daughter
G son grand-son
SF sister of a father (i.e. aunt)
SM sister of a mother (i.e. aunt)
Str or Stra or Strag stranger in blood
Stra BL stranger, brother-in-law
Stra DL stranger, daughter-in-law
Stra NC stranger, natural child (i.e. illegitimate)
Stra ND stranger, natural daughter (i.e. illegitimate)
Stra NS stranger, natural son (i.e. illegitimate)
Stra NC (of a daughter) stranger, illegitimate child of a daughter
Stra NC (of a son) stranger, illegitimate child of a son
Stra (sent) stranger, servant of deceased
Stra SL stranger, sister-in-law or stranger, son-in-law
Stra or ‘son’ stranger, natural son (i.e. illegitimate)
Stra or ‘daughter’ stranger, natural daughter (i.e. illegitimate)


Abbreviations used in column 7 of the 2nd headings: contingency
amg among
attn attains
contingency conditions of bequest
dividds dividends
eqy equally
est estate
int interest
int durg miny prinl when 21 interest on bequest payable during minority of legatee and principal when legatee attains 21 years of age
pble payable
p or princl principal
reversion bequest reverts to another legatee upon a certain condition, e.g. the death of the first beneficiary
ring etc. mourning ring and other bequests
SER or suc of equal rate succession of equal rate after death of legatee, i.e. equal division of the bequest amongst the heirs of the legatee
until she attns 21 or marr legacy not operable until the beneficiary reaches the age of 21 or marries
when 21 with accumls legatee to receive principal and accumulated interest on it when he reaches the age of 21 years
with bent of survp with benefit of survivorship, i.e. if a bequest is distributed between a group of legatees and one dies, the rest are entitled to share out that legacy equally amongst themselves within six months = payment of legacy within this period


Abbreviations found in various columns of the death duty registers
de bonis non /15th Oct 1851/ date of later grant of administration
in resd in residue
not liable the bequests are to relatives too closely related to the deceased for duty to be payable
not subject to Duty legacies are to be paid out of the profits of land charged on real estate sales and are therefore (pre-1805) not liable to duty
P E personal estate
qy query
R A /1448-1837/ Residuary Account, Number /1448-1837/ – reference to accounts of money received as duty. Most of these accounts have now been destroyed, although a few remain in IR 19 and IR 59.
R E real estate

9. Further reading

Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list.

The books are all available in The National Archives’ reference library. You may also be able to find them in a local library. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.

Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 58