An executor is the administrator of the estate of a deceased who is in charge of steering a last will and testament through probate. Her responsibility begins at the testator's death, and among her first duties is filing a petition for probate in the appropriate county. The will -- the testator's written description of how he wishes his estate distributed -- is a private document up until the date of death. Once the will is filed in probate, no confidentiality concerns impede an executor from providing will copies to interested parties.
Evaluate your reasons for wanting a copy of the last will and testament. Your motivations determine the best approach as well as your chances of obtaining cooperation from the executor. If you are named heir or guardian under the document, witnessed the will or otherwise have a relationship with the will itself, the executor is obliged to provide you a copy of the document. Similarly, if you are a creditor or debtor of the deceased, the executor -- as business manager of the estate -- must provide you copies of relevant documents. Telephone the executor requesting a copy of the will.
Read More: How to Ask if You Are in a Last Will & Testament
Tread more carefully if you want a copy of the will to prepare a will contest. To challenge the will or will provision, you must stand to inherit if the will fails; heirs under a prior will qualify, for example, and those in line for intestate distribution in the absence of a will. An executor owes the highest possible duty of care -- termed fiduciary duty -- to the testator's legal heirs, not necessarily to the heirs named in the will. For example, if a new spouse exercised undue influence over an ill testator and caused him to leave the bulk of his estate to her, the executor need not take sides in a will contest -- her duty is to whomever the court finds to be the rightful heir. Therefore, the executor's duties likely include providing a copy of a will to someone with standing to bring a will contest. However, do not telephone your request; create a record by writing a letter to the executor requesting a copy of the will and setting forth your reasons. Mail the letter with return receipt requested. That way you will have proof that you took prompt action to obtain a copy of the will in case the court requests it.
Take your best shot if curiosity moves you to obtain a copy of the will from the executor, but you should have a back-up plan. The fact that the will is public does not mean that the executor is obliged to provide copies to everyone who asks. Write a simple letter requesting a copy of the will without specifying your interest. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope and see what happens. Nothing prevents you from visiting the probate court and obtaining a copy yourself. The court clerk finds the file and charges a nominal amount for the copying service.
If you do not know the name or address of the executor, visit the probate court in the county in which the testator lived and look in the probate file. While you are there, obtain a copy of the will from the court clerk to save yourself the effort of contacting the executor.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.