Are Wills Public Record in California?

By Teo Spengler

Neither the California Public Records Act nor the federal Freedom of Information Act applies to court documents. However, the California court system provides public access to all court documents not specifically made private by state statute. Thus, a last will and testament becomes a public document in California the minute it is filed in probate, absent a court order to the contrary.

During Executor's Life

A will is a legal document specifying who will inherit the testator's assets and property. In California, a testator can amend or revoke a will during her lifetime; the will is not effective until after her death. Before the testator's death, her will is a personal document and therefore private in the eyes of the California courts. Even those who witness a testator's last testament do not have a right to view the contents.

Probate

After a testator dies, the executor files a petition for probate in a California superior court in the county in which the decedent lived. The petition provides information about the person who died, the named executor and the heirs under the will. If the judge grants the petition, the probate clerk opens a file for the probate. That file contains the initial petition for probate, the last will and testament as well as any other documents filed regarding administration of the estate. In California, anyone can view this file at the courthouse.

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Exceptions

Some documents in a California probate file may be private. California statutes identify some records as confidential, which means that the public may not look at or copy them. Confidential records include records from juvenile court, adoption proceedings, termination of parental rights proceedings, grand jury proceedings before indictment, medical records and reports, arrest reports and criminal history information. If a last will includes or incorporates any statutorily confidential documents, the court orders the will or part of it sealed.

Viewing a Will

In California, anyone can view a will in probate. Go to the county court, find the probate clerk's office and request the appropriate probate file by providing the name of the deceased and the date of death. The last will and testament is among the first documents in the file. Review it for free in the courthouse, or request a copy. The clerk charges a small fee, usually by page, to copy documents.

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How Can I Get a Copy of a Last Will & Testament?

References

Related articles

How to Find Out If You Were Included in a Will When Someone Dies

A death in the family brings sorrow, and it also brings complications over inheritance. A last will and testament is the deceased family member's final communication to the world about her life, and few lines are more painful than that dividing the heirs from the disinherited. Although the will executor eventually contacts heirs to distribute assets, this can be months, and even years, after the date of death, depending upon the complexity of the estate. You can find out the will terms far earlier by making a short trip to the county courthouse.

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.

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.

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