Is a Will a Public Document?

By Teo Spengler

A will is a public document from the moment it gets filed in a probate court. All wills in the United States pass through probate to become effective. The executor charged with administering the estate files the will with the probate court, who then supervises the process of collecting assets, paying bills and distributing property. Probate documents, like most court documents, are generally open to public viewing.

During the Testator's Lifetime

During the lifetime of the testator, a will is as private as she wishes it to be. A testator shows the last testament to whomever she pleases, but no person has a legal right to access. Many testators update their wills as their life circumstances change -- after marriage or divorce, for example -- revoking earlier wills without making them public. Even those persons witnessing a will have no right to read its provisions.

During Probate

Will provisions, no matter how specifically drawn, require court action to come into effect. After a testator's death, the executor proves the will by establishing to the probate court's satisfaction -- usually though witness testimony -- that the signature is the testator's and that he intended the document to be his will. After that, the executor administers the estate through asset distribution. Members of the public can view the will at the courthouse during the probate process.

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Viewing Probate Files

Court files are accessible to the public during business hours. Generally, the probate court in the county in which the testator last resided has probate jurisdiction. Go to the court with the full name and date of death of the deceased. Provide this information to the court clerk, who will locate the file and give it to you for review. Mark the will and any other important documents, and ask for copies. There is usually a small fee for this service.

After Probate

Probate closes when the court approves the distribution of assets. Courts retain old probate files, however, and they remain public information. Relatively recent probate files remain in the courthouse, and you access them in the same manner as open files. Courts often move older files to archives, which delays viewing. In some jurisdictions, you first have to order archived files and review them a few days later. Some jurisdictions keep the oldest wills in large folders in alphabetical or chronological order.

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Does Probate Make a Will Public?


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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 making the will -- the testator -- wants her property distributed after her death. Since states regulate wills, procedural requirements vary, but every jurisdiction treats wills as private during the life of the testator. Once the testator dies, however, her will moves into the public realm.

How to Find Wills

Wills not only provide information about heirs and inheritance, but also help those tracing family history or establishing a chain of property ownership. Prior to a testator's death, his will is a private document and you "find" it only with his permission. The court does not open wills of a living person to public review even if the testator filed them with the court for safe keeping. From the date the court accepts a will for probate, however, the will becomes part of the court file and accessible to the public. The more recent the probate, the easier the will to locate.

Viewing Last Wills & Testaments

A last will and testament is the written description of how the maker of the will -- called the testator -- intends to distribute her property at her death. Heirs receive a copy of the will at the testator's death, but family members and the curious public view it in the courthouse.

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