How to Read a Last Will & Testament

By Teo Spengler

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.

Step 1

Realize that you cannot read the will of a living person absent her consent. During a testator's lifetime, a last will and testament remains a private document, altered at will by the testator as her life circumstances change. Even her attorney is bound to secrecy. Some testators talk freely about the contents of wills, while many prefer to keep will provisions confidential. Given a legitimate urgency to view the will of a living testator, ask her directly. At her death, however, look for the last will and testament in the probate court.

Step 2

Identify the probate court administering the will you want to read. If you know the executor, call and ask him. Generally, the court in the district in which the deceased lived retains jurisdiction. Call the court clerk's office and ask the appropriate method of checking probate files in the county. Large courts offer an automated phone line or Internet site; smaller or less sophisticated ones require you to visit the courthouse. Find the probate file number, if possible, and ask for the street address of the court.

Protect your loved ones. Start My Estate Plan

Step 3

Go to the courthouse during business hours. Find the probate court clerk; often one office deals with all files including probate. Provide the court clerk with the probate file number if you obtained it. Alternatively, give him the name and date of death of the deceased. He locates the probate number and file. Review the file at the clerk's window or in a different area of the room set aside for file reading. Confirm that the file contains the will that interests you by checking the testator's date of birth or home address.

Step 4

Locate the last will and testament. The executor of the will -- the person charged with shepherding the will through the probate process -- generally opens probate by filing a Petition for Probate with the will and death certificate attached. Take whatever time you need to review the will. Do not mark any file document or attempt to remove a document and carry it out with you; stealing or damaging court property is a serious offense. Instead, note interesting documents and order copies. The clerk charges a small, per-page fee.

Protect your loved ones. Start My Estate Plan
How Can I Get a Copy of a Last Will & Testament?

References

Related articles

How to Locate a Person's Last Will & Testament

The only time you can locate a last will and testament -- legally -- is after the testator is dead. During a person's lifetime, her will is private and attempts to view or abscond with it are considered criminal. A will is the written description of the testator 's intentions for her property after her death. It includes devises and names an executor to administer the will. When the testator dies, the executor files the will in probate court; that is where you -- and any other member of the public -- can locate it.

How do I Find Last Will Records?

Last will records are strictly private during the life of the testator. After his demise, they move into the public realm. Whether you need the will records to ascertain an inheritance, trace property ownership or piece together family history, your search begins at the courthouse. The will executor -- the person administering the estate -- files a petition for probate with the court in the county in which the testator resided before he died. The resulting probate file, containing the will and all pertinent will documents, is available for public viewing.

How to Find Out If You Were Included in a Will When Someone Dies

A death in the family brings sorrow, and it also brings complications over inheritance. A last will and testament is the deceased family member's final communication to the world about her life, and few lines are more painful than that dividing the heirs from the disinherited. Although the will executor eventually contacts heirs to distribute assets, this can be months, and even years, after the date of death, depending upon the complexity of the estate. You can find out the will terms far earlier by making a short trip to the county courthouse.

LegalZoom. Legal help is here. Start Here. Wills. Trusts. Attorney help.

Related articles

How to Find a Will for Someone Who Has Died

A last will and testament is the final comment of the deceased on her life. You review a will to note that comment, to ...

How to Find Deceased Family Wills

A will is a written document that identifies a person's property and heirs, and can therefore provide useful ...

How to Find Wills

Wills not only provide information about heirs and inheritance, but also help those tracing family history or ...

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 ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED