A will cannot remain hidden in a bottom drawer or stashed in an attorney's safe forever. It moves from a confidential and private document to a public one the moment the person who made the will dies. Whether you are a potential heir or simply curious, you can discover whether a will was filed by simply visiting the probate court.
Private and Public Wills
Think of a will as a roadmap describing where a person's assets go when he dies. While this legal document must be written and witnessed according to state law, the body of the will depends on the desires of the person drafting it. He can change the will once or a hundred times during his lifetime without explanation or any need to justify his choices because the will is a private document. But after he dies, the latest version of the will becomes irrevocable. At the same time, it moves into the public arena in probate court.
Even the best drafted will does not self-activate. The document indicates what friends and family members are to receive which assets, but someone must make this happen. That someone is the executor, and she is generally named in the will. The executor's job is to follow state procedures to carry out the wishes of the deceased. She files the will in probate court then, in a court-supervised process, collects assets and pays estate debts before distributing the estate to beneficiaries.
Which Probate Court
Most court-filed documents are public documents that may be viewed by anyone who wants to come by and take a look. You can find out whether a particular will has been filed, and even view it, by visiting the probate court. Be sure to choose the right probate court. Generally, a will is filed in the county where a person resided at life's end. If a person has real estate holdings, the will might also be filed in the county where the land is located.
Determining Will Filing
You may be able to find a list of probate filings on the Internet or by calling the probate court in some states, but the universal method of determining whether a will has been filed is to visit the probate court. Give the court clerk the name of the deceased and his date of death. The clerk will tell you if a probate case has been opened and allow you to inspect the file. The will should be among the earliest documents.