Does Probate Make a Will Public?

By Teo Spengler

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.

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.

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.

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Probate Process

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.

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Is a Will a Public Document?

References

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How to Find a Will for Someone Who Has Died

A last will and testament is the final comment of the deceased on her life. You review a will to note that comment, to ascertain if you are among the heirs or out of simple curiosity. During the testator's lifetime, you cannot read the will without her permission; it is legally a private and personal document. After the testator dies, however, the will executor files the testament in probate court and any member of the public reviews it at the court clerk's office.

How to Read a Last Will & Testament

The grim-faced lawyer gathers interested parties in a tense circle, then opens the sealed envelope containing the will and begins to read it into the silence. This scene occurs in television sitcoms more often than real life. No jurisdiction requires a public reading of a will, yet all states permit public access to probate files. After the testator's demise, the court supervises her will's probate. Any member of the public can read her last will and testament in the county courthouse.

How to Get a Will From Probate Court

Wills are sometimes full of secrets, listing family assets, naming offspring -- legitimate and otherwise -- and creating legacies for some and disinheriting others. Many people store last will and testaments in safety deposit boxes, personal safes or sealed envelopes left with legal counsel. But when a testator dies, the will's executor opens court-supervised probate to collect assets, pay debts and distribute the estate, and any member of the public can view the document and even make a copy.

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