Many people cloak their wills in mystery, writing them in secret, hiding them in a wall safe or bank vault and refusing to breath a word about their intentions. But upon the testator's death, state law takes over. In order for the will to be effective, the person administering it -- termed the executor -- files it in probate court and authenticates the signature. When the will becomes part of a probate file, it is a public document, open to public review.
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Petition for Probate
The term "probate" refers to the court supervised legal process that includes determining the validity of a will, as well as the period of time the probate court supervises the administration of a will. The rules and procedures differ among states, but generally, the will executor files a petition for probate soon after the death of the testator, attaching the death certificate and the will. The court reviews the petition to determine whether it is the appropriate court -- usually the court in the last county of residence of the deceased has jurisdiction.
When a court accepts the petition, the executor begins the administrative process of proving the signature, gathering assets, paying bills and distributing the estate. The court supervises this process through the distribution of assets to ensure honesty and accuracy. It requires and reviews asset inventories and distribution reports. During this time, the will remains in the court probate file. Probate files, like most court files, are public records. Any member of the public can review the file at the court clerk's office during business hours.
Close of Probate
After the court approves asset distribution, the executor transfers estate property to the heirs specified in the testator's will. This terminates probate. However, the court stores and archives old files and those files remain part of the public record. Most jurisdictions transfer the contents of recently closed files to microfilm and use computer indexing. Often, courts keep older wills and probate documents in their original form and members of the public search probate archive indexes.
Viewing a Probated Will
You view a probated will by appearing at the court clerk's office in the county of the will's probate. Identify the file either by probate file number or by name and date of death of the deceased. The court clerk either locates the file or, in the case of an older will, instructs you how to proceed. Keep in mind that both active probate files and archived wills remain court documents. Do not mark, amend or remove any document. Almost all jurisdictions provide a copying service for a small per-page fee.