When a person, known as a testator, executes a will, he usually stores it in a secure location not readily available to others. While this is good practice for avoiding theft, damage and mere curious snooping, it could permanently keep the will hidden if the testator fails to leave instructions for retrieving the document after the testator's death. If this happens, however, you likely may be able to hunt it down by checking the most common places where wills are kept.
One of the most common places to store a will is in a secured lockbox inside the home. Many testators use a fireproof box with a lock-and-key to keep their wills safe from fire or other disasters, theft and accidental destruction. Locked filing cabinets and personal safes are also popular for the same reasons, and are often kept in the testator’s master bedroom or home office.
However, note that if you are searching the testator’s personal belongings to find his will, there may be some legal obstacles to overcome first. If you suspect the will is inside a locked box and you are not the testator’s surviving spouse, you will likely need to obtain permission from the probate court to open it, even if you are the appointed executor.
A testators can furnish an appointed executor with a signed copy of her will for safekeeping, so the executor may already have a valid copy on hand. If not, the testator may have provided the executor with instructions for locating and retrieving the will after her passing. The executor should be able to furnish you with a copy upon request, although if the executor does possess the will, be aware that he needs to file the signed version with the probate court and cannot provide you with an original copy.
If the testator retained an attorney to draft her will, the attorney may have a copy -- it is not uncommon for testators to use an attorney as a witness to a will and leave a signed copy behind for safekeeping. If you know the name of the testator’s attorney, request the original copy the attorney has on file. The attorney may also have a digital copy of the will, although the probate court is unlikely to uphold a printed copy if it lacks the testator’s signature.
Office of the County Recorder
While not widespread in practice, some testators file a copy of their signed wills with their local office of the county recorder. Once filed, the will becomes a part of public record for anyone to review or request. If you know the testator filed a copy of his will with the local county recorder, you may be able to obtain the original filed copy, bearing the original signatures of the testator and the witnesses, which the probate court should acknowledge as valid.
County Probate Court
A few states permit a testator to file a copy of her will with the probate court and obtain a docket number for future proceedings. If so, the probate court has the original copy of the signed will, which becomes a matter of public record immediately after filing and is available to the general public. You can request a copy of the filed will from the clerk of the probate court, although you will need to pay a nominal administrative fee to cover the costs of searching and reproducing the will.
If the testator’s estate already completed probate more than seven years prior to your request, the will is likely to be found in the court’s storage facilities. You can still request a copy, but it can take up to six to eight weeks for a clerk to locate the will, and you will likely incur a considerably larger administrative fee as a result.
- "Probate in Practice"; Thomas H. Tristram, et al.; 2000
- "Probate & Administration of Estates"; Emma Gaudern, et al.; 2007
- "Administration of Estates"; Bernadette Griffin, et al.; 2008
Carrie Ferland is a practicing civil litigation defense attorney in the Philadelphia Area. As an author, her work has been featured in various legal publications for over 10 years. Ferland is a 2000 graduate of Pennsylvania State University and completed her Juris Doctorate and Master of Business Administration with the Dickinson School of Law. She is currently pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in English.