Are Wills Public Information?

By Teo Spengler

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.

Writing a Will

The process of drafting a will is private. If a person writes a testament in her attorney's office, the law requires the attorney to keep it confidential. The testator also doesn't have to show the will's contents to witnesses. States generally require that at least two adults witness the testator's signature on form wills or other prepared wills; the testator identifies the document as her will before signing, but the witnesses do not review will provisions. Some states permit holographic wills, or wills written entirely in longhand by the testator. These wills do not generally require affirming witnesses, and thus remain private.

Moving a Will to Probate

A wise testator safeguards his will during his lifetime in a home vault or at his attorney's office, and often provides a sealed copy to the executor he names in the will. When the testator dies, the executor locates the original will and files it -- together with a petition for probate and a death certificate -- in the court in the country in which the testator resided. The court supervises the process of validating the will and administering the estate.

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Probating a Will

The moment the executor files the will in probate court, it becomes public information; that is, any member of the public can view the will at the court clerk's office. Probate generally takes from four to six months to complete, although will challenges prolong the process. During probate, the executor inventories the assets, identifies and locates the heirs, pays estate debts and distributes estate property to heirs. While probate proceeds, the probate file remains active and open to public viewing.

After Probate

The probate court supervises the executor's work at every stage to assure accuracy and honesty. Once the court approves final distribution, the executor closes probate. The will, however, remains a public document. Like other closed court files, it remains in the court building and members of the public may access it by asking the court clerk for assistance. The court stores very old wills separately, often in archives. Viewing an old will sometimes requires searching an archive index for the name of the deceased. Other jurisdictions transfer old wills to microfilm and use computer indexing.

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Is a Will Public Information After Death?

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Is a Will a Public Document?

A will is a public document from the moment it gets filed in a probate court. All wills in the United States pass through probate to become effective. The executor charged with administering the estate files the will with the probate court, who then supervises the process of collecting assets, paying bills and distributing property. Probate documents, like most court documents, are generally open to public viewing.

How to Read a Last Will & Testament

The grim-faced lawyer gathers interested parties in a tense circle, then opens the sealed envelope containing the will and begins to read it into the silence. This scene occurs in television sitcoms more often than real life. No jurisdiction requires a public reading of a will, yet all states permit public access to probate files. After the testator's demise, the court supervises her will's probate. Any member of the public can read her last will and testament in the county courthouse.

Where Are Wills Kept?

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.

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