Most probate records are public record, available to anyone wanting information on a deceased person or their property. The county probate clerk keeps probate records that you can search in person, or you may be able to view some information online. Searching probate records can reveal proceedings in which you might be personally interested, such as a relative whose estate is being probated. It's also a good way to do genealogy research and gather information about your family.
Anyone can search probate records by visiting the court in the county where the person died. Most, if not all, probate clerks will charge you for copies of records.
Understanding the Role of Probate
Probate is the process that takes place after someone dies. It involves a lot of paperwork and is usually overseen by the probate court in the jurisdiction where the person died. The role of probate is to ensure the deceased's will is valid, gathering all her property and assets, paying her bills and taxes and, finally, distributing property to heirs. These duties fall to the person names as executor in the deceased's will. If the deceased died without leaving a will, the court will appoint a responsible person, called an administrator, to manage the responsibilities of probate.
There are various steps you can take to locate the probate papers after the process is finalized.
Find the County Where the Person Died
Determine the county in which the probate action is filed. If you do not know this, then you can start by searching each county in which the person lived or owned property or the county in which the person died.
Contact the County Probate Clerk
Check the website of the county probate clerk in which the probate action is filed. You may be able to find probate records over the internet. If you cannot access the records over the internet, then telephone the probate clerk's office to determine if the records can be mailed or faxed to you or whether you will need to pick them up in person. The probate clerk should give you a case number and the location of the record. Then you will have to go to that location to view the records.
Be aware that probate records are public records, but sometimes a judge can seal some records if asked to do so by a party to the case. You will not be able to view a record that has been sealed.
Search the Internet
Where the county maintains online records, you can search the database on the internet for the name of the person whose estate you are interested in. Input the person's last name; last name and first name; or last name, first name and middle initial. You can also search by attorney name, court docket or case number. An online search typically will give you the case record for the documents you are looking for. However, you may not be able to see the actual documents in the file.
Collect the Records
Go to the county probate clerk's office and give the clerk the name of the case and the number of the file you want to review. If you have done a search on the county website, then you will need to tell the clerk the specific documents from the file you want to review or make copies of. If you have not been able to do a search of the file, then tell the clerk you want to review the case file and the clerk will hand you the file and allow you to review it. Some probate clerks will charge you a fee to research records, so the more work you can do on your own, the less money you will have to spend.