Can Anyone See Someone's Last Will & Testament?

By Teo Spengler

While a testator remains alive, her will is a private document. She shows it to whom she wishes, and others have no right to view it. It is revocable at whim. At the testator's death, however, the will executor files the document with the probate court. Once a will is filed with the court, it is a public document unless the court orders otherwise.

Effective Date

Over a lifetime, a person may author many wills, each appropriate to the circumstances of her life at the time she executes it. As she passes through the corridors of life -- marries, has children, divorces or has grandchildren -- the thoughtful testator revises her bequests. Each will is valid when executed but revoked by the subsequent will. Only the will in effect at the time of her death becomes effective.

Probate

Probate is the process by which a court oversees the administration of a will. Typically, the executor -- named by the testator in the will -- files the last testament in probate court after the testator dies. The executor collects assets, pays bills and distributes property according to the terms of the will. The court reviews the process to assure compliance with law. Probate generally takes six to nine months to complete, although large estates and will contests extend the proceeding.

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Accessibility

Most court documents are public: The court clerk generally allows anyone to view documents in court files and to make copies. Some court records, however, are so sensitive that state statutes order them sealed. In Connecticut, for example, all court documents recording conversations between a psychiatrist and patient are automatically sealed. While probate files are not among the matters sealed by statute, a court, upon proper motion, orders the records sealed in certain cases, such as celebrity wills.

Types of Records

A probate file contains not only the last will and testament of the deceased, but all documents filed in the probate such as executor reports, lists of bills paid and assets distributed. Probate files also include will objections and will contest proceedings. Members of the public can access both current and closed probate files.

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Is a Will a Public Document?

References

Related articles

How Can I Get a Copy of a Last Will & Testament?

Don't expect to see your grandfather's will while he is alive, unless he decides to show it to you. While the testator -- the person making a will -- is alive, his last testament is private and completely revocable. Your grandfather can change it on whim by writing a codicil or drafting a superseding will. However, when the testator dies, his will becomes effective -- and public. The court opens probate on the will and any member of the public can view and copy the document in the clerk's office.

Is a Will Public Information After Death?

Many people keep their last will and testament secret while they are alive, hidden away in a safety deposit box or a personal safe. But unless the will is superseded by another, it loses its private status when the testator dies. Whether the will belongs to a celebrity or your grandmother, it is usually open to public viewing after death.

How to Find a Will for Someone Who Has Died

A last will and testament is the final comment of the deceased on her life. You review a will to note that comment, to ascertain if you are among the heirs or out of simple curiosity. During the testator's lifetime, you cannot read the will without her permission; it is legally a private and personal document. After the testator dies, however, the will executor files the testament in probate court and any member of the public reviews it at the court clerk's office.

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