Neither the California Public Records Act nor the federal Freedom of Information Act applies to court documents. However, the California court system provides public access to all court documents not specifically made private by state statute. Thus, a last will and testament becomes a public document in California the minute it is filed in probate, absent a court order to the contrary.
During Executor's Life
A will is a legal document specifying who will inherit the testator's assets and property. In California, a testator can amend or revoke a will during her lifetime; the will is not effective until after her death. Before the testator's death, her will is a personal document and therefore private in the eyes of the California courts. Even those who witness a testator's last testament do not have a right to view the contents.
After a testator dies, the executor files a petition for probate in a California superior court in the county in which the decedent lived. The petition provides information about the person who died, the named executor and the heirs under the will. If the judge grants the petition, the probate clerk opens a file for the probate. That file contains the initial petition for probate, the last will and testament as well as any other documents filed regarding administration of the estate. In California, anyone can view this file at the courthouse.
Some documents in a California probate file may be private. California statutes identify some records as confidential, which means that the public may not look at or copy them. Confidential records include records from juvenile court, adoption proceedings, termination of parental rights proceedings, grand jury proceedings before indictment, medical records and reports, arrest reports and criminal history information. If a last will includes or incorporates any statutorily confidential documents, the court orders the will or part of it sealed.
Viewing a Will
In California, anyone can view a will in probate. Go to the county court, find the probate clerk's office and request the appropriate probate file by providing the name of the deceased and the date of death. The last will and testament is among the first documents in the file. Review it for free in the courthouse, or request a copy. The clerk charges a small fee, usually by page, to copy documents.
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.