Are Wills Public Record?

In this article...
  • If a will is public record, anyone can view it by visiting their local probate court. Learn when wills become public record and how to access copies of a will.

There are various reasons for wishing to view a will, from researching your family history to discovering if a relative left you any assets. Whether this is possible depends on it being part of the public records. So, are wills public record, and how do you view a will?

What Is a Will?

A last will and testament is an estate planning document detailing how a person wishes to distribute their assets, such as real estate and personal belongings, after their death. Your will can also deal with other issues, such as who will care for your minor children in the event of your death. 

Each state has its own rules about what constitutes a valid will. For example, some states require witnesses to sign at the same time as the person making the will (the testator) for it to be valid. Assuming the will is valid, it's a legally binding document.

Most people name a trusted person as their executor in their will, and this person is responsible for tying up the estate and distributing the assets according to the instructions in the will. If the person doesn't name an executor, the court will appoint an appropriate person as an administrator to complete probate.

Are Wills Public Record?

Wills become public record after the person dies and the probate process is complete. Until then, the will remains the private property of whoever made it. Generally, the executor or administrator must file the will with the nearest court to begin probate, and the court will make it publicly accessible once the assets have been distributed. This process can take time, especially if the probate process is complex or someone contests the will, so you may not be able to view it for a while after the testator dies.

Some testators choose to file their will with the court before their death, although this isn't a legal requirement, and it isn't an option in every state. However, the will remains their private property — and you can't access the will of a living person. 

What Is Probate, and How Does It Work?

Probate is a legal process that begins when the executor files the will with the court. The court will establish whether the will is valid according to state law, which is usually a straightforward matter. It must also give the executor permission to conduct transactions on behalf of the estate. At this point, the only people allowed to view the will are court officials, the executor and any beneficiaries or other individuals mentioned in the document.

Next, the executor or administrator begins tying up the testator's estate. This can involve:

  • Finding and listing the testator's assets
  • Having any real estate assets valued
  • Paying any outstanding debts and taxes
  • Distributing the assets according to the will or state laws

Are All Wills Subject to Probate?

Most states allow testators to bequeath property up to a specific value without the need for probate or offer simplified probate proceedings for estates below a particular value. They may also allow simplified procedures if the testator leaves all their assets to their surviving spouse. In these situations, wills may become public record significantly faster than those going through full probate proceedings. 

How Can I View Public Records of a Will?

Some courts allow people to access public records, such as wills, online. If not, you can view a public record will by attending the nearest probate court to where the testator died. The courthouse may also be known as the circuit court, surrogates court or orphans' court. You'll usually need to provide the testator's name and date of death. If you don't know exactly when they died, you may need to obtain a copy of their death certificate first. 
The clerk will use this information to locate the case number, which provides access to the will. The court may hold a digitized copy if the will is relatively new. Older wills are often held as paper or microfilm copies, and the courthouse will provide the equipment you need to view them.

If you need a copy of the will, you'll usually need to pay a copying fee. Courthouses generally charge copying fees per page. Most courthouses will process formal written requests for copies of public record wills if you can't attend in person. 

What Does Dying Intestate Mean?

Dying intestate means the deceased person didn't make a will before death. Each state has its own intestacy laws to deal with these situations. The court will appoint an administrator to manage the estate and distribute the person's assets, much like an executor. However, unlike an executor, the administrator must distribute any assets following intestacy law. Usually, this results in assets going to the person's surviving spouse, children and other close relatives. 

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