How to Read a Last Will & Testament After a Death

By Teo Spengler

TV shows sometimes include scenes in which an attorney for a recently deceased millionaire reads the will to the assembled relatives, causing shock and astonishment. However, no American jurisdiction requires a public will reading. Most people read a will at the court clerk's office. After a testator dies, the probate court reviews his will for validity and supervises its administration until the executor distributes estate property to the heirs. This is termed probate. Anyone can read or copy the will at the courthouse during and after probate.

Step 1

Find out which court probates the last will and testament you wish to read. Look first to the court in the county in which the testator resided. A person's "residence" is a legal concept that's largely determined by the intent of the testator; thus, stays in convalescent homes or hospitals do not count for residence purposes. Check the obituary or the death certificate for the home address of the deceased or for other clues as to his residence. If you are still unsure, contact courts in each county in which the deceased kept a home.

Step 2

Contact the court probating the will to ascertain probate search procedures. A few courts, like Los Angeles, have an automated telephone line that provides a probate number and case status when you input the last name of the deceased. Some courts maintain Internet sites where you search by name or date of death. Most courts require you to appear at the clerk's office during business hours. While you are on the phone with the court, request the street address and business hours.

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Step 3

Go to the courthouse and locate the clerk's office. Provide the name and date of death of the deceased, or the probate file number, if you have it. The clerk finds the probate file and gives it to you to review. The executor of the will prepares most of the documents in the file. Her initial filing is a petition for probate, and she generally attaches the will to this petition. Look in the early pages of the file for these documents. Read the last will and testament and order a copy of it for home review. The clerk usually charges a small per-page copy fee.

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How to Find Out If a Deceased Person Had a Will


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How to Find Wills

Wills not only provide information about heirs and inheritance, but also help those tracing family history or establishing a chain of property ownership. Prior to a testator's death, his will is a private document and you "find" it only with his permission. The court does not open wills of a living person to public review even if the testator filed them with the court for safe keeping. From the date the court accepts a will for probate, however, the will becomes part of the court file and accessible to the public. The more recent the probate, the easier the will to locate.

How to Find a Will Left by a Deceased Relative

When a relative dies, finding the will often takes a backseat to funeral preparations and other urgent matters. To distribute your deceased relative's estate, however, you will need to find the will and file it with the probate court. Finding a will left by a deceased relative goes much more quickly if you know where to look, as well as who to ask about the will's whereabouts.

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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