Wills not only provide information about heirs and inheritance, but also help those tracing family history or establishing a chain of property ownership. Prior to a testator's death, his will is a private document and you "find" it only with his permission. The court does not open wills of a living person to public review even if the testator filed them with the court for safe keeping. From the date the court accepts a will for probate, however, the will becomes part of the court file and accessible to the public. The more recent the probate, the easier the will to locate.
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Determine the name of the court probating the will -- usually the civil court in the county in which the deceased lived before death. If the deceased is a stranger, obtain his full name, date of death and last place of residence from the obituary or Social Security death index. If the deceased possessed several residences, list the street addresses and ascertain all possible probate jurisdictions.
Telephone the court most likely to have probate jurisdiction. If the clerk cannot provide probate information on the phone, ask whether the court maintains an Internet site or automated telephone line with updated probate information. If so, use those tools to determine whether that jurisdiction probates the will in question. If the court offers no easy manner of accessing probate information, obtain the street address and business hours of the court.
Visit the court during regular business hours. Ask a security guard or at an information desk for the appropriate office for viewing probate records. Some courts maintain all files in one office; larger jurisdictions maintain separate civil and criminal divisions, while still others have desks just for family law or probate cases. When you get to the window, give the clerk the full name and date of death of the deceased and request the probate file. Court personnel maintain files chronologically; the will is among the earliest filings. If the clerk's files do not include a probate file for the deceased, repeat the procedure in other counties until you locate the file.
Look for older wills in the same manner. Court personnel locate relatively recent wills on computer file listings. Old, archived wills sometimes require a search of archived will indexes. The courts organize the indexes either chronologically or alphabetically; they may or may not be computerized. Some jurisdictions maintain the oldest wills in folders; in this case, look through the wills carefully to locate the one that interests you.
Tips & Warnings
The originals of old wills are fragile. Treat them gently.
Do not attempt to take any document from the courthouse. You risk civil and criminal penalties. Ask for a copy and pay the small fee.
References & Resources
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