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.
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Realize that you cannot read the will of a living person absent her consent. During a testator's lifetime, a last will and testament remains a private document, altered at will by the testator as her life circumstances change. Even her attorney is bound to secrecy. Some testators talk freely about the contents of wills, while many prefer to keep will provisions confidential. Given a legitimate urgency to view the will of a living testator, ask her directly. At her death, however, look for the last will and testament in the probate court.
Identify the probate court administering the will you want to read. If you know the executor, call and ask him. Generally, the court in the district in which the deceased lived retains jurisdiction. Call the court clerk's office and ask the appropriate method of checking probate files in the county. Large courts offer an automated phone line or Internet site; smaller or less sophisticated ones require you to visit the courthouse. Find the probate file number, if possible, and ask for the street address of the court.
Go to the courthouse during business hours. Find the probate court clerk; often one office deals with all files including probate. Provide the court clerk with the probate file number if you obtained it. Alternatively, give him the name and date of death of the deceased. He locates the probate number and file. Review the file at the clerk's window or in a different area of the room set aside for file reading. Confirm that the file contains the will that interests you by checking the testator's date of birth or home address.
Locate the last will and testament. The executor of the will -- the person charged with shepherding the will through the probate process -- generally opens probate by filing a Petition for Probate with the will and death certificate attached. Take whatever time you need to review the will. Do not mark any file document or attempt to remove a document and carry it out with you; stealing or damaging court property is a serious offense. Instead, note interesting documents and order copies. The clerk charges a small, per-page fee.