During a person's lifetime, her will is private; she determines who views the document. After she dies, the will becomes public. The executor files the document with the probate court and notifies all beneficiaries. At that point, anyone may inspect the will. To determine whether you are a beneficiary in a family member's will, review the will at the courthouse or contact the executor.
Review the Will
Locate the court with probate jurisdiction over your relative's will. In most cases, this is the court in the county in which she lived at the end of her lifetime -- information you can get from the obituary or death certificate. Telephone the probate court in that county and ask whether the probate is pending there. If it is not, call probate courts in other counties in which the testator kept a residence.
Visit the probate court and ask to see your relative's probate file. In some counties, one office handles all civil court filing including probate, while other counties maintain a family law section to manage probate files. Give the clerk identifying information like your relative's name and date of death and -- if possible -- the probate number.
Review the probate file. Look in the early filings for a copy of the last will and testament, which is often appended to the petition for probate. Either read the will to see if you are a beneficiary, or ask the clerk to make a copy of the will to review later. Expect to pay a small copy fee.
Write or call the will executor, if it is not convenient to visit the probate court. The executor is the person appointed by the court to administer the will through probate. Ask family members for the name and address or phone number of the executor.
Call the probate court to obtain the name and phone number of the executor, if you cannot obtain it from family members.
Ask the executor of the will whether you are a beneficiary in your relative's will. Ask for a copy of the will so you can verify the information he provided.
If you speak with the executor about the will, write a letter confirming the conversation. It could protect you in case of mistake or fraud.
While you are looking at the will, obtain the executor's name and phone number. This information will be listed on the petition for probate. The executor can answer any questions you have about the probate of the will.
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.