A will is a private document until the person who made it dies. At that point, it is filed in probate court and becomes open for viewing by the public. You can find the will of a deceased person by locating the appropriate probate court and searching the files. In some places, for a fee, the court clerk will find and copy the will for you.
Whether it's long or short, simple or complex, a will is a legal document that sets out what someone wants to happen to his property after he dies. The person making the will is called the testator, and as long as he is alive, he can change the will whenever he likes or revoke it and write another. It is a private document and nobody can get access to it unless the testator wants to show it to him.
Filing Wills in Probate
Once the testator dies, the will is irrevocable. However, the testator's assets do not pass automatically to the persons named in the will. Instead, someone must file the will with the probate court and it typically must pass through a court-supervised process where the testator's property is collected, his debts and taxes paid and, finally, his remaining assets distributed.
Read More: Do All Wills Have to Go Through Probate?
Finding Wills in Probate
The first step toward finding the will of someone who died is to determine where she resided just before her death. This is where you'll usually find her will. Even if she actually died on while on vacation in Mexico, if her home and hearth was in Madison, Wyoming, it is very likely that the person's will was filed in probate court in the town she called home. Find the phone number of the court online and place a call before you head down there. The probate court clerk should be able to confirm that the will is filed in that court and give you the case number. You can show up during business hours to inspect or copy it.
Getting Court Assistance
Some probate courts, especially in urban areas, will search for and copy wills for you, for a fee. Check the court's website to find out what services the probate department offers, as well as how to access them. In some places, you can mail in an order form requesting the particular will. Alternatively, you might be able to order a copy of the document via the court website. Services vary widely among courts, but it is certainly worth an internet search or a phone call, especially if you live far away.
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.