How to Find Out If a Deceased Person Had a Will

By Lee Hall, J.D.

How to Find Out If a Deceased Person Had a Will

By Lee Hall, J.D.

Rarely do people talk about where they keep their wills. To satisfy creditors and settle an estate or trust, a number of documents become necessary. A key document is the person's last will and testament.

Two people working at laptops at desk

Usually, if a document marked "Will" or "Last Will and Testament" does not occupy a prominent spot on a desk or a bookshelf of the deceased, family members rummage through files, drawers, and personal papers until they find this critical document. While looking for any lists of personal items and names, anything that says "codicil" might be helpful during the probate process. When determining whether someone had a will, start with the simplest step.

1. Ask the executor.

The deceased has likely designated a spouse, close friend, or relative to serve as executor of the estate. The executor should know the will's location. Sometimes, questions arise as to who the executor is. In any case, the one who does find the will must take it to the probate court in the county of residence of the deceased. State law requires the person who finds the will to deposit it with the probate court within a brief window of time—usually just a matter of days. In probate court, the executor has the duty to publicize its contents.

2. Look for the lawyer who drafted the will.

If a person had an attorney draft the will, it's wise to call the law office to find it. Old bank statements can point you to the law office the deceased may have used. If all else fails, you might publish a death notice in your county legal newspaper with a request that the attorney produce the last will and testament. The attorney must file the will with the probate court, where you can obtain a copy.

3. Obtain permission to check secure spots.

If you know there's a will, but you've cleaned out everything and still can't find it, it could be at the bank in a safe deposit box. If you are an immediate family member, you might receive permission to look in the safe (without removing any other contents of the safe). If not, explain the situation to the probate court to ascertain what legal steps to take to gain access to the safe. If the deceased person never made a will at all, state law directs the distribution of property to the creditors and claimants.

Sometimes, a person dies without telling anyone the location of their will. They might think the location they chose is obvious—if it's in a safe or safety deposit box—or they must just never have gotten around to it. Perhaps the people who knew have died as well. In some rare cases, a probate court has to compel a party to produce a will. Usually, though, the information is where those closest to the deceased can find it. It just might take a little hunting. At the end of the day, regardless of whether a will exists, the probate court can guide and oversee the distribution of property.

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