Does Probate Make a Will Public?

By Teo Spengler

Many people cloak their wills in mystery, writing them in secret, hiding them in a wall safe or bank vault and refusing to breath a word about their intentions. But upon the testator's death, state law takes over. In order for the will to be effective, the person administering it -- termed the executor -- files it in probate court and authenticates the signature. When the will becomes part of a probate file, it is a public document, open to public review.

Petition for Probate

The term "probate" refers to the court supervised legal process that includes determining the validity of a will, as well as the period of time the probate court supervises the administration of a will. The rules and procedures differ among states, but generally, the will executor files a petition for probate soon after the death of the testator, attaching the death certificate and the will. The court reviews the petition to determine whether it is the appropriate court -- usually the court in the last county of residence of the deceased has jurisdiction.

Probate Process

When a court accepts the petition, the executor begins the administrative process of proving the signature, gathering assets, paying bills and distributing the estate. The court supervises this process through the distribution of assets to ensure honesty and accuracy. It requires and reviews asset inventories and distribution reports. During this time, the will remains in the court probate file. Probate files, like most court files, are public records. Any member of the public can review the file at the court clerk's office during business hours.

Protect your loved ones. Start My Estate Plan

Close of Probate

After the court approves asset distribution, the executor transfers estate property to the heirs specified in the testator's will. This terminates probate. However, the court stores and archives old files and those files remain part of the public record. Most jurisdictions transfer the contents of recently closed files to microfilm and use computer indexing. Often, courts keep older wills and probate documents in their original form and members of the public search probate archive indexes.

Viewing a Probated Will

You view a probated will by appearing at the court clerk's office in the county of the will's probate. Identify the file either by probate file number or by name and date of death of the deceased. The court clerk either locates the file or, in the case of an older will, instructs you how to proceed. Keep in mind that both active probate files and archived wills remain court documents. Do not mark, amend or remove any document. Almost all jurisdictions provide a copying service for a small per-page fee.

Protect your loved ones. Start My Estate Plan
Is a Will a Public Document?

References

Related articles

Is a Will a Public Record?

A will is a written document in which a person, termed a testator, describes how she wishes her estate to pass on her death. A last will and testament begins as a private document -- during the testator's life, she controls access to it -- but it finishes as a public one. A will in probate is open to public inspection.

How to Find Deceased Family Wills

A will is a written document that identifies a person's property and heirs, and can therefore provide useful information if, for example, you want to trace your ancestry or investigate a particular financial transaction. Effective after death, a will passes through a probate court where a judge oversees asset distribution according to the will's instructions. Therefore, when searching for the will of a deceased family member, start in the probate court that supervised its administration.

How to Find the Executor of a Will

When a testator drafts her will, she not only names individuals to inherit her property, but also appoints someone to complete the administrative task of transferring assets to heirs. This person -- called the executor -- carries out the testator's instructions while complying with requisite legal procedures. She owes duties to the deceased testator, the heirs and the court that prohibit any in-dealing or dishonesty. After the testator's death, the executor files the will in probate and begins administering the estate.

LegalZoom. Legal help is here. Start Here. Wills. Trusts. Attorney help.

Related articles

Are Wills Public Information?

State statutes protect a will from the prying eyes of the public until a testator dies. During her lifetime, the ...

Can Anyone See Someone's Last Will & Testament?

While a testator remains alive, her will is a private document. She shows it to whom she wishes, and others have no ...

Are Wills Open to the Public?

Wills are open to the public after they go into effect, not before. A will is the written description of how the person ...

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 ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED