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.
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.