Is a Will Public Information After Death?

By Teo Spengler

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 But unless the will is superseded by another, it loses its private status when the testator dies.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.

Wills Initially Private

Courts use the terms "will" and "testament" interchangeably. Both terms refer to a document written and signed by a testator specifying who inherits his property on his death. States authorize different kinds of wills -- holographic, form and international wills, for example -- and prescribe rules for each. No matter what kind of will a testator drafts, it is not a public document during his lifetime. The statutes do not require the testator to show the will contents to anyone, even will witnesses.

Court-Filed Wills Public

A testator executes a will according to state requirements. All states require a testator to sign a form will, for example, before witnesses. A properly executed will remains completely revocable by a living testator. If a will is revoked by an act -- crossing out the will -- or by a superseding testament, it remains private. When the testator dies, his latest will becomes effective and -- once filed in probate court -- becomes a public document.

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Probated Wills Public

Probate is the court-supervised process of administering a will. The will usually names an executor; if not, the court appoints one. The executor steers the estate from the testator's death through property distribution -- collecting and appraising assets, locating heirs, paying creditors and liquidating property. The court requires reports from the executor to assure an honest and accurate accounting. Among the first documents the executor files is the will itself. Once the will is in the probate file, it is a public document that's available for viewing.

Viewing Public Wills

Anyone can view a will in probate by appearing at the courthouse with either the probate file number or the name and date of death of the deceased. The court clerk locates the file and permits viewing either at the clerk's window or in a separate file-viewing area. The last will and testament is generally among the first documents in the file. Members of the public can obtain copies of the will by requesting a copy and paying a per-page fee.

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Are Wills Public Information?


Related articles

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 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.

Are Wills Public Record in California?

Neither the California Public Records Act nor the federal Freedom of Information Act applies to court documents. However, the California court system provides public access to all court documents not specifically made private by state statute. Thus, a last will and testament becomes a public document in California the minute it is filed in probate, absent a court order to the contrary.

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.

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