Is a Will a Public Record?

By Teo Spengler

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.

Drafting Wills

When the testator sits down to write a will, the document -- including notes, drafts, lists and letters to the estate attorney -- are private documents. The privacy of her documents does not depend upon attorney involvement. A testator handwriting a holographic will, for example, retains complete control over who views the document. Since a holographic will requires no witnesses, the testator can keep the will's existence private, as well as its contents.

Executing Wills

Executing a will means signing it according to the procedures required under state probate law. The requirements vary among types of wills and between jurisdictions, but every state requires that a testator sign a prepared will -- whether a form will, a typed will or a will prepared by an attorney -- in the presence of at least two witnesses. The testator affirms to the witnesses that the document is her last will and testament before she signs it. However, no state requires the testator to allow the witnesses to read or review the contents of the will. During execution, the document remains private.

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Probating Wills

In her will, the testator names an executor, the person who will administer the estate. When the testator dies, the executor petitions to open probate and files the will with the probate court. He then collects assets, pays estate debts and distributes the property as set forth in the will. During probate, the will is a public record. Most court documents are public, and no states except probate documents from this rule. Any member of the public may inspect the will in the court probate file.

Archiving Wills

Once the executor completes his work and distributes the estate among the testator's heirs, he closes probate. However, the court retains probated wills in its files. These wills, referred to as archived wills, remain public records open to public inspection. Currently, courts store archived wills on microfilm, but early records remain in original form. Members of the public look through indexes, organized either alphabetically or by date, to locate old wills.

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Are Wills Open to the Public?

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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.

Is a Will a Public Document?

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.

How to Read a Last Will & Testament

The grim-faced lawyer gathers interested parties in a tense circle, then opens the sealed envelope containing the will and begins to read it into the silence. This scene occurs in television sitcoms more often than real life. No jurisdiction requires a public reading of a will, yet all states permit public access to probate files. After the testator's demise, the court supervises her will's probate. Any member of the public can read her last will and testament in the county courthouse.

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