|The allocation: Intestates' accounts
|The allocation: Testates' accounts
Probate accounts were the final process an executor or administrator was required to complete, and should clearly account for all the goods and debts received and all the debts and legacies paid and expenses incurred during the winding up of the deceased's estate, recording a final balance. As such, they were required from both the executors of persons leaving a will and from the administrators of intestates.
Probate accounts were produced throughout England and Wales and can be found today in diocesan archival collections.1 The requirement for exhibiting an inventory and then rendering an account were made explicit in the oath and bond executors and administrators submitted to the court (or its commissioned) officials upon their being granted administration. Only in 1685 was this requirement modified so that accounts thereafter might only be presented at the demand of a legatee, a relative or a creditor. In fact, even prior to 1685 accounts seem never to have been presented in the same numbers as were inventories, and after this date accounts are rare and generally occur only in the context of litigation. While probate accounts can in range in date from 1521 to 1855, they only survive nationally in appreciable numbers for the short period 1570-1720. The patterns of generation, filing and survival of accounts vary from diocese to diocese and are not yet fully understood. For Durham diocese between 300 and 400 accounts survive for the period 1527 to 1857, but of these only a handful date from after the 1680s.2
Accounts usually should have been submitted within six months after the inventory had been exhibited and within twelve months of the grant of probate or administration. If an administrator took longer settling and distributing the estate, then the court could chase them up (and reclaim any costs incurred). In fact, as noted above, not all executors and administrators rendered an account, and presentation of an account could be long suspended if a minor under tuition was involved. Reasons for why the church court might require one administrator to return an account and not another are not yet evident: the only clear pattern emerging from the Durham accounts thus far is a marked increase in times of high mortality - plague years - when we might expect the court to require more care in the confusion and in the absence of next of kin and other interested parties.
The account's importance for the accountant was that once it had been validated by the church court the executor or administrator was then publicly acquitted or discharged from any further liability. Accountants, perhaps with other interested parties in attendance - legatees and creditors for example - would render the account, or if dilatory be cited to do so.3 A fair copy of the account might be drawn up usually by a proctor of the court, and then presented along with any supporting papers. The careful administrator would have kept careful records during the winding up process: for sums over 40 shillings receipts were required as proof of payment, although such proofs are rare survivals today. Some accounts carry evidence in the margins of the court's decision for or against particular items of expenditure. An account itself - if validated by the court - represents all interested parties' formal agreement to its contents and particularly to the discharge of the accountant: the court might also issue letters testimonial to the accountant as a certificate of their diligence and completion of their duty. As such a formal agreement the account may in fact represent in some respects the final compromise between such parties rather than the complete financial declaration we might expect. Traces of this negotiation can sometimes be found in items whose inclusion in the account is clearly still forming part of a developing argument.
1 Probate accounts were also produced in the North American colonies.
In England and Wales diocesan archives are usually held in County Record Offices or the relevant
National Archives. In the case of Durham, the diocesan archives are held in the Archives and
Special Collections of Durham University.
2 In comparison, there are about 15,000 inventories for the same period. It is not yet known if many more accounts were in fact presented or submitted in some way, and which were either never filed or have since been destroyed. These figures are for items in the main probate series DPRI/1, and do not include inventories and accounts filed with cause papers and associated with litigation processes in other records series: the form of such disputed inventories and accounts can vary from that presented here.
3Examples also exist of infirm administrators submitting accounts by proxy, and, the account having been passed in court, being sworn to its veracity by commission in their own homes.