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?

Many people keep their last will and testament secret while they are alive, hidden away in a safety deposit box or a personal safe. But unless the will is superseded by another, it loses its private status when the testator dies. Whether the will belongs to a celebrity or your grandmother, it is usually open to public viewing after death.

Are Wills Open to the Public?

Wills are open to the public after they go into effect, not before. A will is the written description of how the person making the will -- the testator -- wants her property distributed after her death. Since states regulate wills, procedural requirements vary, but every jurisdiction treats wills as private during the life of the testator. Once the testator dies, however, her will moves into the public realm.

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.

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