A will is a legal document that sets out the distribution of a person's assets after their death. It is a private document until the death of the testator, at which point it is filed with the probate court. Once this occurs, the will becomes a matter of public record, and anyone can view it.
In the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, interested parties can contact the office of the Register of Wills in the county where the testator lived to view or get copies of a will.
Wills in Pennsylvania
When estate planning, the person creating the will, known as the testator, determines the distribution of their assets to beneficiaries after they pass away. A person who dies without a will, dies intestate.
This means that Pennsylvania’s intestacy laws dictate the distribution of the decedent's estate, typically starting with their closest relatives or family members. A person who creates a will can direct their property to the beneficiaries of their choosing, rather than to relatives they may have never met.
According to state statute, a testator in Pennsylvania must be at least 18 years old and of sound mind. The will must be a hard copy – on actual paper from a computer or typewriter – and cannot be digital, audio or video. Pennsylvania does not recognize oral or holographic wills, which are created in the testator’s handwriting and have no witness signatures.
Revoking or Changing a Will in Pennsylvania
A will can be revoked at any time by a Pennsylvania testator who can:
- Burn, cancel, destroy, obliterate or tear a will to revoke it.
- Order someone else to cancel, destroy, obliterate or tear a will to revoke it in the presence of two witnesses.
- Make another will that revokes the one that came before it.
- Make a document declaring that the old will has been revoked following the same formalities used when creating the original.
If the person making the will was in the process of divorcing, or had already divorced, their spouse after establishing grounds for divorce (or in the event a court determines that the their marriage is not valid), the state will revoke the will’s language declaring that the spouse will inherit the testator's property or is the will’s executor, unless the testator specifies that the divorce does not affect provisions in the will.
A person wishing to make a simple change to their will can create an amendment known as a codicil, which is considered part of the will and will be read at the same time as the original document. The codicil’s creation has the same requirements as the will.
Where Pennsylvania Wills Are Found
Pennsylvanians file public records in the orphans’ court register of wills in each county. There, they are recorded in indexed books. Orphans’ Court records include wills, appeals, proceedings, minutes, dockets, bonds, adoptions, marriages, and births and deaths.
The oldest and largest counties in Pennsylvania have administrations with comprehensive indexes and published abstracts of wills.
A search of general, docket or estate indexes will unearth evidence of probate proceedings in the state. Various records are typically transcribed into Orphans' Court Record or Administrator's Account books. Depending on when the will was made, third-party sites like Ancestry or Family Search also have access to these records, as do local historical societies.
Requesting Probate Records in Philadelphia
While all counties in Pennsylvania keep these records, how they are found can differ somewhat from place to place. For example, when requesting information from the Philadelphia Register of Wills, the inquiring party will need:
- Testator’s full name at the time of death.
- Testator’s date of death.
- Types of records requested.
Interested parties can fill out a probate record request form or write a letter containing the required information. They pay $20 for the court office to locate the record, plus an additional fee for copies, made payable by money order to the Register of Wills and include a stamped, self-addressed envelope with the request.
All requests should be mailed to the Register of Wills, Room 180, City Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107.
Response Time From the Register of Wills Office
The office response time is about seven to 10 business days. If the record is found, an office representative will contact the requestor with information about its contents; this gives the requestor a chance to make further inquiries.
If no record is found, the office will send the requestor a letter. Interested parties can also visit the Register of Wills in person at the same address from Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Searching for a Will in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Locating a will in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, is similar to locating one in Philadelphia with just a few small differences. The fee for locating a will with a copy of the document is just $10. If it isn’t found, there is no refund for the requestor. A money order must be made payable in this amount to the Department of Court Records and mailed to the City-County Building, 414 Grant Street, First Floor, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15219.
To request the search, the interested party can download an Allegheny County Will Search form. They’ll need to fill in the decedent’s name and date of death, and the name and contact information, including address, phone number and email of the person requesting the copies.
Interested parties who need certified copies of a will for legal purposes must contact the Department of Court Records, Wills/Orphans' Court Division at 412-350-4186 or 412-350-4192 for more information.
- Allegheny County: Will Search Form
- Philadephia.gov: Request a Probate Record
- Family Search: Pennsylvania Probate Records
- Haggerty Law: FAQs About Wills in Pennsylvania
- Pennsylvania Legislature: Section 2507 Modification by Circumstances
- Pennsylvania Legislature: Section 2505 Revocation of a Will
- Find Law: Pennsylvania Wills Laws
- Justia: Section 2501 Who May Make a Will
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.