There are several places to search for a copy of a will. Where you look first will depend on whether or not the will has gone through probate---the process of officially transferring a decedent's estate to the executor of the will. Here are some tips to get you started.
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Check with the county courthouse first, if the will you are searching for has already gone through probate. After an estate has been probated, a copy of the will is filed in the Register of Wills office for the county in which it was probated. Depending on the county, you may be able to conduct this search online or you may have to visit the office. You will need the full name of the decedent, and you may be required to pay a fee to obtain an official copy of the document.
Find the executor of the will. If the estate has not yet gone through probate or the will has not been filed with the county, the executor will usually have a copy. Most people name an immediate family member or close friend as executor. If you are unsure who the executor is, ask the decedent's family members for help.
Go to the attorney who prepared the will if you are looking for a will that has yet to be probated. Most attorneys keep extensive files containing all of the documents that they have drafted for clients. Because of attorney/client privileges, you will need special permission from the testator (the person who witnessed the signing of the will) to obtain this document. You will most likely need the testator to accompany you to the attorney's office unless you have durable power of attorney.
Search the decedent's belongings. If the will has not yet been filed, and you are unable to locate the executor of the estate or the attorney who drafted the document, you may be able to find the will in the decedent's home. Some common places where people keep wills are: in filing cabinets, safes, desk drawers, and hidden in the pages of a favourite book.
Tips and warnings
- Once a will is probated, it becomes public record and anyone may request to see a copy.
- If you suspect a will may be in a decedent's safe deposit box, call the bank branch to find out if you are eligible to access it. Regulations vary by state.
- If you suspect a decedent's immediate family members are deliberately withholding information about a will that has not been probated, contact a lawyer for advice---you may have to sue the lawful heirs if you require access before a will is probated.
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