Are Last Wills & Testaments Public Information?

By Anna Assad

A last will and testament typically becomes public information once the person is deceased and probate has been initiated or completed, depending on the state. The will is usually available for viewing in the court clerk's office of the probate or surrogate's court where the estate proceedings were held. A will may not become public information after death if legal proceedings are not started for the estate.

Function

A person's last will and testament contains instructions for some matters after death and provisions for loved ones. The executor, the person who oversees the estate when the person dies, is usually named in the will. In some cases, the person drafting the will may intentionally omit an heir and include a statement declaring that the omission is being done on purpose. The reason for the heir's exclusion may be included in the will, but is usually not required. The will may be seen by the public once the person has died and the court has been informed, and the content is generally not edited by the court.

Effects

Probate proceedings are generally commenced when a person dies with a will. The executor files a petition in court for probate proceedings, and once he is legally appointed, he may access the estate's assets, transfer inheritances to heirs and pay enforceable estate debts. Some states permit wills to be viewed by the public once a death certificate is filed in the probate court, while others do not allow public viewing of wills until an executor is appointed.

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Considerations

A will may be looked at for a variety of reasons. An heir who is unsure about how much of the estate she was entitled to may look at the will at a later date, especially if she was a minor at the time of death and not completely informed about the legal proceedings or her entitlement. Older wills are often reviewed to identify family members for genealogy and family tree purposes. A title company may need to view an estate file, will included, to verify that the chain of ownership to a piece of real estate is free of any legal problems.

Misconceptions

A request in a will that the document remain private after death does not have to be followed, but the estate inventory -- a list of assets the deceased person owned -- may be sealed at the executor's request. A will may contain requests for guardianship of minor children. Some states no longer allow the viewing of a death certificate filed with the will by the public, but the person's date of death is shown on the probate petition. A will that has been filed for safekeeping with the court cannot be viewed by anyone other than the person the will belongs to or a representative, like a legal guardian, while the person is still living. Holographic wills -- wills that are entirely handwritten -- are valid in some states, but a typewritten version approved by the court is usually included with the handwritten will in the estate records.

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References

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