A last will and testament gives directions about bequeathing property, helps with genealogical research and tracing lines of estate ownership. If the person who made the will, the testator, is still living it is a private document and cannot be searched. After the testator is deceased and a court accepts the will for probate, the document becomes accessible to the public. Although wills are public records, they are not always easy to locate. In California, the wills of smaller estates may be difficult to find because estates less than $150,000 can be settled outside of probate court.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Most county courthouses have probate records available to search online or in person using the deceased person's name and case number. Some counties can also mail probate records. Getting copies may cost a small fee.
Find out which probate court filed the will. Typically the probate jurisdiction is the civil court of the county where the testator lived. For example, in Los Angeles, contact the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, Probate Department. Provide the deceased person's full name and, if available, the probate court case number. If the deceased lived in more than one residence, note each address to find possible probate court locations.
Visit the website of the county probate court having jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, you can find probate records online. If a will has been filed in San Francisco, for instance, it is a record of the Superior Court of the County of San Francisco, Probate Division.
Call the county probate court having jurisdiction. If you cannot search for the will over the internet, ask the clerk whether documents can be sent to you or if you can obtain them in person. In Los Angeles County, probate records are not available online. You must call the probate court and speak to a clerk who will provide the case number and the location of the will. Access the document at that location.
Visit the probate department of the court during business hours. Provide the clerk with the full name, court case if available and any other identifying information, such as the death date of the testator, and ask for the probate file. Court documents are kept chronologically. If the will of the deceased is not located, visit the probate courts of neighboring counties.
Search for older wills in archived will indexes. A court clerk will be able to search for a recent probate record in a computerized database. Less recent files may not be digitized or accessible by computer. In these cases, visit a physical archive of the court where the older wills are maintained. Look through the archived files until you locate the will.
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