How to Find a Will for Someone Who Has Died

By Teo Spengler

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.

Step 1

Determine the full name of the testator, his date of death and the county in which he resided during his final years. Call the court in that county and ask about probate search procedures. Large or modern court systems make it easy to locate probate files with automated phone lines or Internet sites. In other jurisdictions, you visit the court clerk's office to inquire. By one of these means, determine which jurisdiction probates the will and the number of the probate file.

Step 2

Visit the court probating the file. Present yourself at the court clerk's window and provide the probate file number. The court clerk locates the file and allows you to look at it either at the window or in a nearby reviewing area. Take whatever time you need to peruse the file but do not remove a document from the file or attempt to remove the file from the courthouse. Severe civil and criminal penalties apply for theft of court documents.

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Step 3

Review the last will and testament, one of the early probate filings, but review the remainder of the file as well to ascertain whether the executor successfully proved the will. If the court found insufficient witnesses or upheld a will challenge, it invalidates the original will. In that case, an earlier will moves into probate or, if none exist, the estate passes by intestate succession. Note documents of interest and ask the court clerk to make copies for you. Pay the per-page fee.

Step 4

Ask the court clerk the procedure to locate a will if probate is finished. Recently closed probate files remain in the computer system and the clerk locates them like open files. If the person whose will you seek died some years earlier, different procedures apply. Modern courts store older documents on microfilm, accessed by a computerized index system, but many jurisdictions keep old documents in folders, organized either chronologically or alphabetically.

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How to Read a Last Will & Testament


Related articles

How to Find a Will in Probate Court

Most wills go through probate, a court-supervised process of administering an estate. Soon after the testator's death, the executor files a probate petition in the appropriate court. The petition includes a copy of the last will and testament, as well as information about the deceased, her heirs and her estate. Since most court records are public records, documents filed in probate court are generally open to public inspection.

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.

Does Probate Make a Will Public?

Many people cloak their wills in mystery, writing them in secret, hiding them in a wall safe or bank vault and refusing to breath a word about their intentions. But upon the testator's death, state law takes over. In order for the will to be effective, the person administering it -- termed the executor -- files it in probate court and authenticates the signature. When the will becomes part of a probate file, it is a public document, open to public review.

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