Most people don’t expect to die the day after they write a will, so they put the finished document somewhere for safekeeping. Years may pass -- even decades -- before it’s needed. Loved ones might be left scrambling when the time comes, wondering exactly where the deceased might have put it, if he didn’t convey this information to any of them. However, some common-sense tactics might help you find a will if you find yourself in this predicament.
Look for a Safe Deposit Box
A safe deposit box is a common place to keep a will, so start your search at your loved one’s bank. Call the institution and ask if he kept a safe deposit box there. If the answer is no, call other banks in your area. Even if you get lucky and find a safe deposit box in his name, you may still have some work to do. The bank probably won’t just open the box at your request. At the very least, you’ll probably have to provide a certified copy of the death certificate, and the bank may have additional requirements as well. You may have to ask the court for an order, directing the bank to open it.
Ideally, you knew the deceased well, so you’re familiar with his habits and routines. Consider where he kept other important papers, such as in a desk, and look for the will there. If he didn't keep meticulous files, perhaps he tossed papers, bills and receipts in a storage container or paper bag until he needed them, so the will might be somewhere in the stack of papers. If he was a bit secretive, it's more likely that he hid his will somewhere. Turn his home upside down, looking in obvious places first, and then everywhere else.
Ask for Help
When you’re searching, don’t just look for the will. Keep an eye out for correspondence, bills or anything else from a professional, such as a lawyer who might have drafted the will or even an accountant or financial adviser. An accountant or financial adviser might not have had a hand in creating the will, but might know what lawyer your loved one was likely to use. If you can identify the attorney, check with him to find out if he has a copy of the will or if he knows what your loved one intended to do with the original. If he’s no longer practicing, check with your state or local bar association to try to find contact information for the lawyer. Local estate law attorneys might know what he’s doing or where he’s living these days as well. A last-ditch effort might be to place a notice in your local newspaper, asking anyone who might have knowledge of the will’s whereabouts to contact you. Talk with other family members and friends. One or more of them may have been witnesses to the will, or they might have some knowledge or insight that can point you in the right direction to find it.
Check with the Court
Some states allow people to place their wills with the court at the time the will is written, signed and witnessed. This process is called registering the document. If your state is one of them, it’s possible that the will is already with the court. Another possibility is that you can’t find it because someone else already submitted it for probate. This might happen if your loved one placed the will with his chosen executor and the executor took the proper next step after his death, filing the will with the court.
If You Can’t Find It
If all your efforts fail and you can’t find the will, the court will probably take the position that the testator destroyed this will with the intention of revoking it. In this case, the deceased’s property passes according to your state’s laws for intestate succession -- a statutory list of relatives who stand in line to inherit when someone dies without a will. Under some isolated circumstances, the court might accept a copy of the will if you can't locate the original.
Read More: What do You Do if You Can't Find a Will for a Deceased Relative?
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.