How to Read a Will in Public Records

By Teo Spengler

The terms of a last will and testament are private until the testator, or will maker, dies -- you cannot know the contents of a living person's will unless he shows you. However, once the testator dies, the will's executor files the document with the probate court. While courts sometimes restrict access to celebrities' wills, you can review the vast majority of wills at the court clerk's office. You can even read a celebrity's will if you are a relative and have a reasonable hope or expectation of receiving a bequest.

Viewing Wills in Probate

Step 1

Determine the court in which the will is being probated. Locate the telephone number for the clerk of court and call for business hours. Ask whether probate documents are kept with general court filings. Obtain the exact street address of the probate document location.

Step 2

Provide the court clerk with the name and date of death. He will obtain the probate case number and pull up the file. Follow his instructions as to where to sit or stand to review the file.

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Step 3

Review the will, one of the first documents in the probate file. Ask the court clerk to make copies of the document to review more fully at home. Pay the small per-page fee.

Reviewing Archived Wills

Step 1

Ask the court clerk where archived wills are stored in your county. Go there with the identifying information about the deceased.

Step 2

Determine the appropriate procedure for locating the archived will. In some jurisdictions, the clerk locates the will for you using the information you provide. Alternatively, the clerk may send you to an index -- either alphabetical or by date -- and you access the information for yourself.

Step 3

Review the archived will. Many courts keep original wills from many years back in binders organized by date, but newer wills will likely be in microfilm. Request copies of the will to review more carefully at home. The court charges a small per-page fee, or directs you to a self-service copier.

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References

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 ascertain if you are among the heirs or out of simple curiosity. During the testator's lifetime, you cannot read the will without her permission; it is legally a private and personal document. After the testator dies, however, the will executor files the testament in probate court and any member of the public reviews it at the court clerk's office.

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 information if, for example, you want to trace your ancestry or investigate a particular financial transaction. Effective after death, a will passes through a probate court where a judge oversees asset distribution according to the will's instructions. Therefore, when searching for the will of a deceased family member, start in the probate court that supervised its administration.

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.

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