Are wills public record upon death?

Written by candace webb
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Are wills public record upon death?
Wills that are public record are stored in probate court. (courthouse image by Michael Shake from

When someone dies it can be emotionally traumatic for those left behind. There are also, however, business considerations to be dealt with, including the will. A last will and testament is the final word on how the deceased wanted possessions, cash and land dispersed. In some instances, a will can become public record, meaning it is accessible by anyone who wishes to see it.

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Will basics

A will is a document signed by the owner that describes all property, cash and investments owned by that person. It also details exactly how that person wants the property dispersed upon his death. A will must be signed by the person in question and typically it must be witnessed and signed by the witness. Many people use attorneys to assemble their last will and testament, but there are do-it-yourself will kits that can be filled out and notarised for authentication purposes. In addition to naming loved ones, the will may contain instructions for business partners, non-profit groups and other parties who will inherit something from the deceased. The will can also instruct the manner in which the property is to be dispersed. For example, the deceased may leave money to a favourite nephew on the condition that he finish college.

Probate wills

A last will and testament will only become public record if it goes through probate court. There are several types of property that do not have to be probated. Life insurance proceeds, jointly owned property and cash reserves under a certain amount of money are not required to go through the probate process. Each state sets its own limits on what the dollar cap is on property values and when it has to be executed by a probate judge. If there is property to be dispersed that does not fall under the protected types, or the dollar value is higher than state guidelines allow, then the will must go through probate.

Public record

Any record that goes through the probate court becomes a public record--accessible by anyone--unless a probate judge orders the records to be sealed. While the will is attached to the court record, the parts of the will that are not covered by probate will not be open for public scrutiny. Typically, the public record also does not disclose the total value or worth of the assets of the deceased.

Viewing public records

A will that has been through the probate process can be viewed in several ways. You can go to the probate court clerk's office in the county the will was from and request to see the records. Viewing records is free of charge. If, however, you wish to take copies with you, the court is allowed to charge a small fee for making your copies. If going to the court in person is not possible, you can write a letter to the court clerk, enclose a check for a pre-specified number of pages and request that a copy of the will be sent to you. You can also send a representative to the court on your behalf.

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