When a relative dies, his executor, you or another family member will need to find the will and file it with the probate court. If the will has already been filed with the court, you may be able to get a copy of the last will and testament from several different sources. Knowing where to get the last will and testament of a relative can prevent surprises in probate.
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According to the Federal Citizen Information Center, many people store important personal records such as wills in the home, often in a household safe or a fire safe. You may even be able to find the will in your relative's freezer. According to attorney Richard D. Silvester, the freezer can serve as a low-cost fire safe, and is not a place many thieves look, which helps keep a last will and testament safe.
Safe Deposit Boxes
The Federal Citizen Information Center recommends that people store the original of their will in a safe deposit box to prevent its accidentally being stolen or destroyed. If your relative had a safe deposit box, the will may be inside, along with other important documents such as life insurance policies and deeds to property. Before you try to open the safe deposit box, however, consult an attorney in your state. Some states require banks to seal the safe deposit box automatically when its owner dies. If this is the case, you will need a court order to retrieve your relative's will from the safe deposit box.
Many states allow a person who makes a last will and testament to file it with their county's probate court for a small fee. If your relative filed his will with the probate court while he was still alive, the court will have the will for safekeeping, but will not automatically open a probate case. Visit the probate court and ask whether your relative's will is available. You may wish to consult an attorney first, since each state's laws differ regarding who may view a will filed with the probate court after the will's owner has passed away, according to the Cleveland Law Library Association.
If your relative's will has already been filed and a probate estate opened in the probate court, you have a right in all 50 states to see a copy of the will if you are listed as a beneficiary or if you would have inherited from your relative if no will existed. Usually, the executor or personal representative of the estate sends notice to every beneficiary once the probate process opens in court. However, you may ask the executor to show you a copy of the will whether or not you have received notice.
References & Resources
- Federal Citizen Information Center: Keeping Household Records
- Richard D. Silvester: Where Should I Keep My Estate Planning Documents?
- Cleveland Public Law Library: Ohio Probate FAQs
- North Carolina State Bar: Legal Assistance for Military Personnel
- Iowa State University Extension: Estate Planning
- Berkeley Lab Commons: Keeping Family Records
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