A deceased person's voice lives on in her Last Will and Testament, a summary of her final wishes for how her property and possessions will be distributed following her death. Although wills start out as private documents, they become a matter or public record after a certain period of time, which differs across different jurisdictions and states. You can view -- or sometimes even get a copy of -- a will, if you know where to look.
Establish your right to view the will. You have this right, and the right to a copy, if you are the surviving spouse, child, trustee, "personal representative" or executor of the estate. You also have this right if you are a beneficiary who has been named in the will.
Call the attorney who handled the estate of the deceased. If you are not the surviving spouse, or do not know the attorney the deceased used, look for any official papers in the deceased person's desk or files under "will,'' "lawyer,'' "estate,'' or similar terms. Check for business cards with lawyer's names on them or correspondence with law firm named on the letterhead.
Go to the county courthouse in the jurisdiction in which the person lived; where their death will have been filed, even if it occurred elsewhere. This might also be called the probate, superior, circuit, district, chancery or surrogate's court. Tell them you want to view a will. Following probate -- the legal process of administering the estate of a deceased person -- all wills become a matter of public record and will be on file. If the person had a "Living Trust,'' the probate process is skipped and the will should be available as soon as the death is officially recorded and all the paperwork filed.
Fill out any forms required and be prepared to show proof of your identity to demonstrate your relationship as a relative of the deceased. It will help if you know the date of death of the person you are looking for; since older wills may have been archived: But wills are filed by last name. There should be no charge for looking at the will, but you may be charged copying or other administrative fees, if you want your own copy.
Broaden your search to state archives, if the will you are seeking is older; it may have been moved into storage or been put on microfilm. A complete list of state archives is maintained by the National Archives (archives.gov/research/alic/reference/state-archives.html), Look for the state you want -- where the deceased lived and their death was registered -- then search by the person's last name.
For fun, you can view the will of a deceased celebrity or other person to whom you have no relation. Once wills become public records, many sources that specialize in "celebrity gossip" will obtain them and make them publicly available online. One of the more popular -- and free -- sites on the Internet is MegaDox.com, where you can search by last name for famous people's wills.
- Last Will and Testament; Who Is Entitled to a Copy of the Will?
- 1800PROBATE.com; Finding Out if a Decedent Left a Will
- "Family Tree Magazine;" Finding Wills; Sharon DeBartolo Carmack ; September 27, 2009
- Public Records Guide; Information on Wills
- MegaDox.com; Celebrity Wills
- National Archives; Archives LIbrary Information Center; State Archives
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