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 Public Information?

Related articles

When Are Wills Made Public?

A will is a legal document that enables you to organize your affairs after your death. When you write a will, you set out instructions about how you want your property divided and your estate handled when you are deceased. Private documents when written, wills become public when they are filed in the probate court.

Are Massachusetts Wills Public Record?

In Massachusetts, you can choose to file your will for safekeeping in your local county probate court. During your lifetime, you are the only person who can access the will from the court's files, but you can name a person to retrieve it upon your death. When you die, if no one claims your will from the court's files, the probate court opens it up to the public following publication of your death.

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.

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