Last will records are strictly private during the life of the testator. After his demise, they move into the public realm. Whether you need the will records to ascertain an inheritance, trace property ownership or piece together family history, your search begins at the courthouse. The will executor -- the person administering the estate -- files a petition for probate with the court in the county in which the testator resided before he died. The resulting probate file, containing the will and all pertinent will documents, is available for public viewing.
Determine the full name of the deceased, his date of death and his county of residence before death. This information is readily available for close relatives; refer to the obituary, phone books or the death certificate if the deceased is a stranger. Obtain a death certificate from the office of vital statistics in the jurisdiction where the death occurred. State real estate records, available in the recorder's office, aid in determining place of residence. Obtain free death information online from the Social Security Death Index (see Resources).
Call the probate court in the county in which the deceased person resided prior to death. Ascertain the method used in that jurisdiction to locate probate records. Court personnel may direct you to an Internet site on which they post updated probate information, or to a dedicated phone life offering probate information. Alternatively, you might need to visit the court in person to review the file. Obtain and note the street address and business hours of the court.
Go to the court during business hours. Locate the clerk in charge of probate records; in smaller jurisdictions, the same office treats all civil and criminal case files, but larger courts have separate family law offices. Provide the clerk the information you acquired including the name and date of death of the deceased. The clerk locates the probate file in the computerized index. If the judge's office checked out the file, ask when to check back. If the file is available, the clerk allows you to review it either at her window or in a reviewing area.
Start at the beginning of the probate file. The executor filed the will early in probate to enable the judge to determine jurisdiction. Later documents indicate whether the executor proved the will to the court's satisfaction, that is, whether she offered proof that the testator signed the will in the presence of witnesses according to state requirements. The file also includes any will contest documents and the court ruling on the challenge. If the court accepts the arguments of a will contestant, the probate file contains either an earlier will filed to replace the invalidated will or else documents establishing that the estate passes to blood kin according to intestate statutes.