A will is a public document from the moment it gets filed in a probate court. All wills in the United States pass through probate to become effective. The executor charged with administering the estate files the will with the probate court, who then supervises the process of collecting assets, paying bills and distributing property. Probate documents, like most court documents, are generally open to public viewing.
During the Testator's Lifetime
During the lifetime of the testator, a will is as private as she wishes it to be. A testator shows the last testament to whomever she pleases, but no person has a legal right to access. Many testators update their wills as their life circumstances change -- after marriage or divorce, for example -- revoking earlier wills without making them public. Even those persons witnessing a will have no right to read its provisions.
Will provisions, no matter how specifically drawn, require court action to come into effect. After a testator's death, the executor proves the will by establishing to the probate court's satisfaction -- usually though witness testimony -- that the signature is the testator's and that he intended the document to be his will. After that, the executor administers the estate through asset distribution. Members of the public can view the will at the courthouse during the probate process.
Viewing Probate Files
Court files are accessible to the public during business hours. Generally, the probate court in the county in which the testator last resided has probate jurisdiction. Go to the court with the full name and date of death of the deceased. Provide this information to the court clerk, who will locate the file and give it to you for review. Mark the will and any other important documents, and ask for copies. There is usually a small fee for this service.
Read More: The Meaning of Denied Probate
Probate closes when the court approves the distribution of assets. Courts retain old probate files, however, and they remain public information. Relatively recent probate files remain in the courthouse, and you access them in the same manner as open files. Courts often move older files to archives, which delays viewing. In some jurisdictions, you first have to order archived files and review them a few days later. Some jurisdictions keep the oldest wills in large folders in alphabetical or chronological order.
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.