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.
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.
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.