Where Are Wills Kept?

By Carrie Ferland

When a person, known as a testator, executes a will, he usually stores it in a secure location not readily available to others. While this is good practice for avoiding theft, damage and mere curious snooping, it could permanently keep the will hidden if the testator fails to leave instructions for retrieving the document after the testator's death. If this happens, however, you likely may be able to hunt it down by checking the most common places where wills are kept.

When a person, known as a testator, executes a will, he usually stores it in a secure location not readily available to others. While this is good practice for avoiding theft, damage and mere curious snooping, it could permanently keep the will hidden if the testator fails to leave instructions for retrieving the document after the testator's death. If this happens, however, you likely may be able to hunt it down by checking the most common places where wills are kept.

Secured Lockbox

One of the most common places to store a will is in a secured lockbox inside the home. Many testators use a fireproof box with a lock-and-key to keep their wills safe from fire or other disasters, theft and accidental destruction. Locked filing cabinets and personal safes are also popular for the same reasons, and are often kept in the testator’s master bedroom or home office. However, note that if you are searching the testator’s personal belongings to find his will, there may be some legal obstacles to overcome first. If you suspect the will is inside a locked box and you are not the testator’s surviving spouse, you will likely need to obtain permission from the probate court to open it, even if you are the appointed executor.

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Appointed Executor

A testators can furnish an appointed executor with a signed copy of her will for safekeeping, so the executor may already have a valid copy on hand. If not, the testator may have provided the executor with instructions for locating and retrieving the will after her passing. The executor should be able to furnish you with a copy upon request, although if the executor does possess the will, be aware that he needs to file the signed version with the probate court and cannot provide you with an original copy.

Family Attorney

If the testator retained an attorney to draft her will, the attorney may have a copy -- it is not uncommon for testators to use an attorney as a witness to a will and leave a signed copy behind for safekeeping. If you know the name of the testator’s attorney, request the original copy the attorney has on file. The attorney may also have a digital copy of the will, although the probate court is unlikely to uphold a printed copy if it lacks the testator’s signature.

Office of the County Recorder

While not widespread in practice, some testators file a copy of their signed wills with their local office of the county recorder. Once filed, the will becomes a part of public record for anyone to review or request. If you know the testator filed a copy of his will with the local county recorder, you may be able to obtain the original filed copy, bearing the original signatures of the testator and the witnesses, which the probate court should acknowledge as valid.

County Probate Court

A few states permit a testator to file a copy of her will with the probate court and obtain a docket number for future proceedings. If so, the probate court has the original copy of the signed will, which becomes a matter of public record immediately after filing and is available to the general public. You can request a copy of the filed will from the clerk of the probate court, although you will need to pay a nominal administrative fee to cover the costs of searching and reproducing the will. If the testator’s estate already completed probate more than seven years prior to your request, the will is likely to be found in the court’s storage facilities. You can still request a copy, but it can take up to six to eight weeks for a clerk to locate the will, and you will likely incur a considerably larger administrative fee as a result.

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How to Read a Last Will & Testament

References

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Where Do I Find Someone's Last Will & Testament?

The original of a last will and testament should be filed with the probate court once its owner passes away. However, sometimes you may not know right away where this document is located, and will therefore need to search for the deceased person's last will and testament. Knowing some commonly used places where someone's last will and testament may be stored at may make the search easier.

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Though not required in most jurisdictions, filing a will with the probate court prior to death creates a public record of the will and saves the executor of the estate a few steps in the final probate process. If the decedent failed to file a copy of his will prior to his passing, the executor will need to locate and file the will herself, and notify all interested parties before initiating the probate process.

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When a testator drafts her will, she not only names individuals to inherit her property, but also appoints someone to complete the administrative task of transferring assets to heirs. This person -- called the executor -- carries out the testator's instructions while complying with requisite legal procedures. She owes duties to the deceased testator, the heirs and the court that prohibit any in-dealing or dishonesty. After the testator's death, the executor files the will in probate and begins administering the estate.

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