How to Find Deceased Family Wills

By Stephanie Kurose, J.D.

How to Find Deceased Family Wills

By Stephanie Kurose, J.D.

A last will and testament is an estate-planning tool that allows the testator (the person making the will) to dictate how and to whom they want their assets distributed. Wills are private property while the testator is alive, but once the testator dies and the will enters probate court, it becomes a public record anybody can search for and view. Typically, a person's will is filed with the probate court located in the county of their last residence. To find a deceased family member's will, contact the probate court in that county.

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1. Find the family member's final address.

The probate court in the county of the decedent's last permanent residence usually administers their will. The first step is to locate both where the family member last lived and the probate court in that area. This shouldn't be difficult, as there are typically only one or two probate courts in a county.

2. Check probate status.

Call the court clerk's office and ask how to check probate status. Some courts have automated phone lines that allow you to input the deceased family member's name and date of death and receive their probate file number. Larger counties often keep electronic files available on the internet with updated probate information. Other counties may require you to go to court in person to look through records. Use these services to confirm that the probate court had jurisdiction over your family member's will.

3. Go to the probate court.

Once you have confirmed the correct probate court, go to the court clerk's office with the probate file number and request the file. The clerk can locate the file and allow you to read it either at the window or in a separate area designated for reviewing files and court documents.

4. Look through the file.

Courts generally organize the documents related to a case in the order in which they received them. The will itself should be somewhere near the beginning of the file, and it might be attached to a petition for probate or the death certificate. Look through the rest of the file to determine whether the court admitted the will or invalidated it. Then check to see whether any of the beneficiaries or heirs contested it. If the court invalidated the will, the executor might have submitted an earlier will.

5. Pay a copying fee.

If you would like to retain a copy of the will or any of the documents in the probate file, ask the clerk for copies. Obtaining copies of documents from the file might require paying a small copying fee.

It is important to note that a will may not always be available for viewing immediately after a person dies. The probate process can take months to complete and the associated documents might not be accessible to the public until after the court settles the decedent's estate. If the will is not available when you search for it, you might have to wait a few months (or even a year or longer) to view it.

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