Don't expect to see your grandfather's will while he is alive, unless he decides to show it to you. While the testator -- the person making a will -- is alive, his last testament is private and completely revocable. Your grandfather can change it on whim by writing a codicil or drafting a superseding will. However, when the testator dies, his will becomes effective -- and public. The court opens probate on the will and any member of the public can view and copy the document in the clerk's office.
Ask a living testator for a copy of his will. He may -- but need not -- agree. Some states permit residents to file a last will and testament with the court for safekeeping, but even a filed will remains private during the testator's life. In most jurisdictions, a testator seals a will before filing it, and it remains sealed until his death. On the other hand, the testator provides copies to anyone he wishes, so you lose nothing by asking.
Obtain the probate file number to view the will of a deceased testator. Ask the executor if you know her. Alternatively, call the superior court in the jurisdiction in which the testator lived. Ask about their probate file procedures. Some courts -- Los Angeles, for example -- operate a special automated probate telephone line. Call the number and provide the name of the deceased and date of death to obtain probate file information. Other courts list probate information on the Internet. Still others require a visit to the courthouse during business hours.
Go to the courthouse. Some courts have separate probate clerks but many combine all civil files. Ask if you are not sure. Find the appropriate court clerk and present the probate file number if you obtained it from a dedicated telephone line or the Internet. Alternatively, present the name and date of death of the deceased. The court clerk retrieves the file and permits you to review it either at the clerk's window or in a separate reviewing area. The will is one of the first documents in the file. Request a copy and pay the small per-page copying fee.
Search through probate records in the courthouse to find older wills. The court clerk will explain the procedure for locating the archived will. In some courts, the clerk locates the will for you. In others, the clerk sends you to an index -- generally alphabetical or by date -- and you access the information for yourself. The will may be in original form or in microfilm. Review it and request copies.
A death certificate makes finding a probate file faster. Obtain one at the office of vital statistics in your state. However, if a question as to the testator's cause of death arises, issuance of the death certificate may be delayed.
Treat the probate records with respect and do not attempt to remove the file or any part thereof from the courthouse. Absconding with court records is a serious offense in all jurisdictions. Severe civil and criminal penalties follow.
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