Before they reach the probate court, wills are private documents that present the final wishes of deceased individuals regarding distribution of their assets. On submission to probate, however, the courts take wills and make them a matter of public record in the interests of justice.
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One of the requirements of probate is that notice is given of the will's submission to probate so creditors and other interested parties can come forward. Such notice usually takes the form of an advertisement in the deceased's local paper. Similarly, during the probate process, the court will index the will, putting a copy on file and possibly also on the public record.
Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act provides that information held by the government of the United States is open for full, or at least partial, disclosure providing it will not compromise national security. This requirement extends to documentation held by local courts, including wills and other estate records. Copies of probated wills are therefore available for a small administration fee.
By making a will public as a matter of course, the courts are able to ensure that all interested parties to the will are able to not only see its contents but also contest the will as necessary. Were wills not made public, it would be possible for a will created as a result of fraud or undue influence to pass through probate unchallenged, causing those who should be beneficiaries to lose out.
Because wills are made public, those writing a will should be careful what they say in them. The airing of family secrets or the discussion of topics that the family regards as private should be thought about carefully before being set down in a will. Keeping the will formal and to the point avoids the potential for public embarrassment.