Where Are Wills Kept?

By Carrie Ferland

When a person, known as a testator, executes a will, he usually stores it in a secure location not readily available to others. While this is good practice for avoiding theft, damage and mere curious snooping, it could permanently keep the will hidden if the testator fails to leave instructions for retrieving the document after the testator's death. If this happens, however, you likely may be able to hunt it down by checking the most common places where wills are kept.

Secured Lockbox

One of the most common places to store a will is in a secured lockbox inside the home. Many testators use a fireproof box with a lock-and-key to keep their wills safe from fire or other disasters, theft and accidental destruction. Locked filing cabinets and personal safes are also popular for the same reasons, and are often kept in the testator’s master bedroom or home office. However, note that if you are searching the testator’s personal belongings to find his will, there may be some legal obstacles to overcome first. If you suspect the will is inside a locked box and you are not the testator’s surviving spouse, you will likely need to obtain permission from the probate court to open it, even if you are the appointed executor.

Appointed Executor

A testators can furnish an appointed executor with a signed copy of her will for safekeeping, so the executor may already have a valid copy on hand. If not, the testator may have provided the executor with instructions for locating and retrieving the will after her passing. The executor should be able to furnish you with a copy upon request, although if the executor does possess the will, be aware that he needs to file the signed version with the probate court and cannot provide you with an original copy.

Protect your loved ones. Start My Estate Plan

Family Attorney

If the testator retained an attorney to draft her will, the attorney may have a copy -- it is not uncommon for testators to use an attorney as a witness to a will and leave a signed copy behind for safekeeping. If you know the name of the testator’s attorney, request the original copy the attorney has on file. The attorney may also have a digital copy of the will, although the probate court is unlikely to uphold a printed copy if it lacks the testator’s signature.

Office of the County Recorder

While not widespread in practice, some testators file a copy of their signed wills with their local office of the county recorder. Once filed, the will becomes a part of public record for anyone to review or request. If you know the testator filed a copy of his will with the local county recorder, you may be able to obtain the original filed copy, bearing the original signatures of the testator and the witnesses, which the probate court should acknowledge as valid.

County Probate Court

A few states permit a testator to file a copy of her will with the probate court and obtain a docket number for future proceedings. If so, the probate court has the original copy of the signed will, which becomes a matter of public record immediately after filing and is available to the general public. You can request a copy of the filed will from the clerk of the probate court, although you will need to pay a nominal administrative fee to cover the costs of searching and reproducing the will. If the testator’s estate already completed probate more than seven years prior to your request, the will is likely to be found in the court’s storage facilities. You can still request a copy, but it can take up to six to eight weeks for a clerk to locate the will, and you will likely incur a considerably larger administrative fee as a result.

Protect your loved ones. Start My Estate Plan
Where Do I Find Someone's Last Will & Testament?
 

References

Related articles

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.

What Can One Do if a Will Is Missing & the Lawyer Who Drafted the Will Isn't Practicing?

If your loved one left his last will and testament with his attorney for safekeeping, the attorney can’t toss the will into a trash bin when he decides to retire or close his office. Not only do the laws in most states prohibit this, lawyers have an ethical responsibility to safeguard their clients’ documents. However, this might not do you much good if you can’t find the attorney to ask where he placed the will. You'll have to do a bit of detective work instead.

How to Locate a Will of a Deceased Person

You must find the will of a deceased person to start probate -- the legal proceedings used to settle a person's final affairs and divide his estate. Ideally, the testator should always provide a copy of the will to his named executor, but if this wasn't done, you may need to be creative in where you start looking.

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

Related articles

Where Are Last Will & Testaments Filed?

When people draw up their last will and testament, they often store the document in a lockbox or a secured filing ...

What Does a Last Will & Testament Look Like?

A last will and testament is almost always in writing. Since the person making the will can choose what kind of paper ...

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 ...

How to Find a Last Will & Testament of a Person

When an individual dies, he leaves behind an estate containing all of the property he owned at the time of his death. ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED