When someone dies and leaves a will, the executor or court-appointed representative is responsible for using his best efforts to notify all those who are named in the will. Sometimes it isn’t possible to find everyone who has been mentioned in a will, and sometimes an individual dies intestate without leaving a will. If you think you may have an inheritance coming and you want to do your own investigation, the place to start is with the probate court, which is the court that oversees the transfer of property and payment and collection of debts after a death.
Check Probate Records First
The first thing to do to figure out if you're a will beneficiary is to check with the probate court in the county of the state where the deceased person lived. Not all wills have to go through probate, but if they do, state laws require that a will must be filed with the court within a specified time period, usually 30 days, after death. In most cases, the will is available to the public. The property of a person who dies without a will also has to go through the probate process.
You can get a copy of the will from the probate court by going to the court yourself, mailing a copy request to the court with a requisite search and copy fee, hiring a lawyer to obtain a copy of the will, arranging for a legal service bureau to get a copy for you or ordering a copy of the will online, if that’s an option. You’ll need to supply the deceased person’s name and year of death, and you’ll have to pay a search fee and a per-page copying fee. If you order a copy by mail, you’ll also have mailing costs, and if you hire an attorney or legal service bureau, you’ll have to pay a service fee.
If there is no will because the deceased person died intestate, the estate will still go to probate court, and the court will distribute the property according to the laws of the state where the property is located. Typically, the court’s decision will become part of the public record, and, for a fee, you will be able to request a copy of the property disposition. The laws of intestacy usually mean that property goes first to the decedent's spouse, then children if there is no spouse. The beneficiaries branch out from there, so whether you receive something through intestate succession will depend upon your familial relationship to the decedent. If you weren't related and there is no will, you likely have no inheritance.
If Records Aren't Publicly Available
If the contents of a will or a court decision about an intestate estate are not made public, your options are limited. You will need to consult with an attorney to see if there is any way for you to get the information you seek. However, if you have not been contacted by the will's executor or a court representative, it’s pretty safe to assume that you didn’t inherit anything.
To find out if you're the beneficiary of an inheritance, contact the probate court in the county where the decedent lived. If a probate estate has been opened, you can do a records search by the decedent's name. If there is no probate estate or if the probate estate is sealed, contact a probate attorney to figure out your options.