How to Find Wills

By Teo Spengler

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.

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.

Step 1

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.

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Step 2

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.

Step 3

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.

Step 4

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.

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How do I Find Last Will Records?

References

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How to Read a Will in Public Records

The terms of a last will and testament are private until the testator, or will maker, dies -- you cannot know the contents of a living person's will unless he shows you. However, once the testator dies, the will's executor files the document with the probate court. While courts sometimes restrict access to celebrities' wills, you can review the vast majority of wills at the court clerk's office. You can even read a celebrity's will if you are a relative and have a reasonable hope or expectation of receiving a bequest.

Viewing Last Wills & Testaments

A last will and testament is the written description of how the maker of the will -- called the testator -- intends to distribute her property at her death. Heirs receive a copy of the will at the testator's death, but family members and the curious public view it in the courthouse.

How to Find a Legal Will

A will is a written document describing a person's intentions for his property after his death. In most states, a probate court judge determines whether a will is legal after the testator's demise. Generally, a will is valid if the testator was of legal age, intended to write a will, included devises and signed the will according to required procedures. The judge also rules on questions raised in a will contest. Valid wills remain in probate court through property distribution, and are public information.

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