How to Read a Last Will & Testament After a Death

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TV shows sometimes include scenes in which an attorney for a recently deceased millionaire reads the will to the assembled relatives, causing shock and astonishment. However, no American jurisdiction requires a public will reading. Most people read a will at the court clerk's office. After a testator dies, the probate court reviews his will for validity and supervises its administration until the executor distributes estate property to the heirs. This is termed probate. Anyone can read or copy the will at the courthouse during and after probate.

Find out which court probates the last will and testament you wish to read. Look first to the court in the county in which the testator resided. A person's "residence" is a legal concept that's largely determined by the intent of the testator; thus, stays in convalescent homes or hospitals do not count for residence purposes. Check the obituary or the death certificate for the home address of the deceased or for other clues as to his residence. If you are still unsure, contact courts in each county in which the deceased kept a home.

Read More: How to Find Out If a Deceased Person Had a Will

Contact the court probating the will to ascertain probate search procedures. A few courts, like Los Angeles, have an automated telephone line that provides a probate number and case status when you input the last name of the deceased. Some courts maintain Internet sites where you search by name or date of death. Most courts require you to appear at the clerk's office during business hours. While you are on the phone with the court, request the street address and business hours.

Go to the courthouse and locate the clerk's office. Provide the name and date of death of the deceased, or the probate file number, if you have it. The clerk finds the probate file and gives it to you to review. The executor of the will prepares most of the documents in the file. Her initial filing is a petition for probate, and she generally attaches the will to this petition. Look in the early pages of the file for these documents. Read the last will and testament and order a copy of it for home review. The clerk usually charges a small per-page copy fee.


  • Leave bags and baggage behind when you visit the courthouse, as security in government buildings can slow you down. Certainly do not carry a knife or other arm to avoid confiscation and maybe criminal penalties.


  • You may be able to find the probate file faster with a death certificate in hand. Go to the office of vital statistics to obtain one. Be aware that uncertainty about the testator's cause of death delays issuance of the death certificate.


About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. 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 M.A. and an M.F.A in creative 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,,, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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