Viewing Last Wills & Testaments

By Teo Spengler

A last will and testament is the written description of how the maker of the will -- called the testator -- intends to distribute her property at her death. Heirs receive a copy of the will at the testator's death, but family members and the curious public view it in the courthouse.

When to View

The last will of a living testator is a private document. Neither heirs nor spouses have a right to view the will during the testator's lifetime, although she shows it to whomever she chooses. Even the will witnesses view only the signature page of the testament. After the testator's demise, the person appointed to administer the will, termed the executor, files a petition for probate, attaching a copy of the death certificate and the last will and testament. From that point on, the will is available for public viewing.

Where to View

The executor files a petition for probate in the superior court of the county in which the testator maintained his primary residence at the time of death. Primary residence is a legal term, determined largely by a person's intent to return. Some people manipulate their primary residence for tax purposes, so it does not necessarily correspond with the place in which the testator spent most of his time. Obituaries and the death certificate often list the county of primary residence of the deceased.

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How to View in Probate

During probate, you view a last will and testament at the courthouse. Some courts provide Internet sites or dedicated telephone lines with updated probate information; use these to confirm the location of probate and to obtain the case number. Any member of the public accesses the probate file by providing the court clerk the probate case number or the full name and date of death of the deceased. The will is among the first documents in the file.

How to View After Probate

Courts retain wills after probate and they remain public information. View a recently probated will in the same manner as one currently in probate, by providing information about the deceased to the court clerk. Courts generally store older wills in archives. Ask the court clerk for the procedure for accessing archived wills. Some courts bundle many old wills together in large folders, arranged alphabetically or chronologically; you sift through original documents for the relevant will. Other jurisdictions store older wills on microfilm.

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How to Find Deceased Family Wills


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How Can I Get a Copy of a Will?

TV shows often portray a lawyer reading the last will and testament to the assembled family. In real life, you usually have to track down a copy of the will yourself. It is easier to get a copy of a will once the maker is dead. You can only see the will of a living person if she agrees to show it you. Once the maker is deceased, however, the will is generally filed with the court for probate. Like most court documents, the vast majority of probated wills are available for public viewing and copying.

How to Read a Last Will & Testament After a Death

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.

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.

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