When Are Wills Made Public?

By Teo Spengler

A will is a legal document that enables you to organize your affairs after your death. When you write a will, you set out instructions about how you want your property divided and your estate handled when you are deceased. Private documents when written, wills become public when they are filed in the probate court.

Making a Will

A will does not go into effect until the person making it dies, so it makes sense that it is private. As your life changes, you may amend or rewrite your will to reflect those changes. Nobody has a right to look at your will during your lifetime; you can choose who to show it to. It is generally a good idea to give a copy to your attorney or executor.

Passing Into Probate

When you die, your will passes into probate court. Often your executor files the document in probate, but other interested persons can also open the probate action. During the probate process, the executor gathers your assets, pays your debts and locates your beneficiaries before dividing the estate according to your directions. Once the document is filed in probate court, it can be viewed by members of the public.

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Self-Proving Will Statutes in New York
 

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Who Enforces the Execution of a Will?

In drafting your will, you may appoint a person to serve as your executor, also known as a personal representative. This person will have the responsibility of carrying out your wishes pursuant to the will. Because the executor has a number of responsibilities and can be held personally responsible if they are not properly carried out, carefully consider appointing someone who is trustworthy and capable of carrying out the somewhat complicated probate process.

Is a Will a Public Record?

A will is a written document in which a person, termed a testator, describes how she wishes her estate to pass on her death. A last will and testament begins as a private document -- during the testator's life, she controls access to it -- but it finishes as a public one. A will in probate is open to public inspection.

Are Wills Public Information?

State statutes protect a will from the prying eyes of the public until a testator dies. During her lifetime, the testator can amend or revoke the will freely and confidentially as her circumstances change. Upon the testator's death, the latest version of her will moves to probate court for administration. The minute the will becomes a court document, it also becomes public information that's open to public viewing.

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