You will need to obtain a copy of a will if, for example, you are named as the executor or a beneficiary and wish to ensure that the deceased's wishes are carried out. Wills pass through probate and become public record as soon as this process is complete, so it's easy to request a copy from the local court. It's not so easy to get a copy if the will maker is still alive, however.
How to Obtain a Living Person's Will
The only way to get hold a living person's will is to ask the will maker for a copy. Wills are private documents until the will maker (called a testator) dies. The testator may choose to keep his will safe at home, file it with his attorney or lodge it with the probate court, but either way, the will is not available for public viewing. The testator can, however, give away copies if he chooses – so the best option is to ask.
When the Will Maker Dies
When the testator dies, her will goes through a process called probate. If she filed the will with the local probate court during her lifetime, then the probate court will "open" the will, at which point it becomes public record. Otherwise, the person named as executor will file the will in the probate court of the county where the testator died.
The executor then starts to gather the testator's bank accounts, real estate and assets, pay debts and taxes, and distribute whatever remains to the beneficiaries under the will. For all but the smallest estates, this process is carried out under the court's supervision. The executor will make regular accounting of his distributions to the court.
Where to Get a Copy of the Will
As soon as the will is opened or filed with the court, anyone can get hold of a copy. You'll need to visit the courthouse and ask a court clerk to locate the file. Ideally, you'll have the probate court file number, which you can get from the executor. Otherwise, you should be able to search the docket using the testator's name, address and approximate date of death. Some courts will let you search this information online or request it over the telephone – check your local court's website for details.
When ordering a copy of the will, you typically have an option of requesting an ordinary copy and a certified copy. The first is a simple photocopy of the will; the second is a copy that the court stamps and certifies to be an exact copy of the original document. You may need a certified copy if you plan to do something "official" with the will, such as giving it to the deceased's bank or insurance company or filing other legal papers, such as a document transferring assets.
Most courts charge a per-page fee for document copies, with certified copies costing more.
What if the Will Is Not Filed?
If the testator died recently, the will may not have been filed with the probate court yet. However, you may still be able to get a copy of the will if you have a legitimate interest in the testator's estate. Generally, this means you are named as a beneficiary, are an adviser such as an attorney or accountant, or are a close family member of the deceased. Contact the executor and ask to see a copy of the will. If you're not sure who the executor is, get hold of a copy of the death certificate through the county. The executor's name should be listed on that.
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