Are wills public record?

You can get a copy of a will only after it’s gone through probate

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Elissa SuhSenior Editor & Disability Insurance ExpertElissa Suh is a disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius, where she also covered wills, trusts, and advance planning. Her work has appeared in MarketWatch, CNBC, PBS, Inverse, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.

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As part of an estate plan, many people choose to create a last will and testament. This legal document contains instructions on what should be done with your property and belongings after you die. Once someone passes away, their will, if they have one, must be filed at the local courthouse. Most estates typically go through probate, the legal process of proving the will and distributing assets, and a will dictates how distributions are handled during probate.

The will does not become part of the public record until after the probate proceeding has concluded. Sometimes probate can take a long time, but once it has concluded, you can find a public copy of the will the same place where it was filed: the probate court. You can also get a copy for a small fee.

Key takeaways

  • Wills only become public record after they have been filed for probate.

  • During probate, only the executor and beneficiaries are typically allowed to see the will.

  • You can find public records of a will at the county court where it was originally filed.

How do you find a will of a deceased person?

In most cases, probate begins whether or not there is a will, but a last will and testament is necessary if you want to direct probate after you're gone. Therefore it is essential that the testator (will writer) store the will in a safe place, like with an estate planning attorney. You might choose to store your last will and testament in a safe deposit box, but you'll have to make sure the executor can access it.

→ Read more about keeping your will safe

A strong estate plan starts with life insurance

Some people even file their will, for a fee, with the county clerk while they’re still alive, although it varies by state and locality. This is for safekeeping and convenience and is not necessary. Wills filed while the testator is still alive are not part of the public record; they’re still the personal property of the testator.

People who are named in a will should be notified by the executor about its existence after the testator's dies.

→ Learn about how to know if you're in a will

Other estate documents, such as a life insurance, may be located elsewhere. There is no government agency to track life insurance policies, but there are several different ways to find the life insurance policy of a deceased person.

What happens to the will during probate?

The executor or personal administrator is responsible for filing the will with the county clerk at the local probate court. The executor manages the estate by paying taxes and unpaid debt, and distributing assets to heirs.

During this time, only the executor and named beneficiaries have access to the will, which won’t become part of the public record until the executor has carried out his or her duties and probate is complete.

The probate process takes time, and is generally longer for larger estates, and can be further drawn out if there are complications and someone decides to contest the will.

How do I find public records of a will?

After a will has become part of the public record, you can obtain a copy at the local courthouse where it was filed. This is usually the county where the deceased person died or where their most recent permanent residence was. Depending on the state and county, the probate court might alternatively be called the circuit court, surrogate’s court, or orphans’ court.

To find public records of the will:

  • 1. Go to the courthouse in person.

  • 2. Provide the clerk with the name of the deceased and a date of death. (If you don’t know the date of death, you could try to first get a copy of the death certificate.)

  • 3. The clerk will give you a case number, which might be needed to look up the probate records, including the will.

  • 4. Depending on the court and how old the will is, you might look at digitized documents, original paper files, or microfilm using the viewing equipment at the courthouse. The clerk will give you instructions on what to do.

  • 5. Pay a fee to get a copy of the will. Copying fees are typically charged by the page. If you’re unable to visit the court in person, you can usually submit a formal written request and mail or fax it to the court.

→ Read more about what you should never put in your will

What if there is no will?

When someone dies without a will, their estate is said to be intestate. The probate judge will appoint someone to administer the estate and give them letters of administration as proof of their legal duties. This administrator will distribute the estate according to state intestacy law, which typically awards property first to the closest blood relations, which is typically the surviving spouse or children.

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