Estate planning attorneys are often asked by clients how to obtain copies of their loves ones' last wills and testaments. In truth, if a person is still alive, his or her will is deemed private personal property, therefore no one has the legal right to view it. Even after a person dies, his will may only be viewed after it has been filed for probate, at which time the document becomes a public court record.
Wills are typically filed in probate courts based on the county in which a deceased person lived at the time of his or her death, or the county in which the deceased person owned real estate.
Once a person determines the correct probate court, he or she can see if their loved one's will has been filed, by checking a court's probate docket, online. If a will has indeed been filed, an individual may procure a copy by appearing in court and paying the typical copying fee of $.50 to several dollars/page. If one is physically unable to appear in court, he may request a copy of the will by fax or mail, and furnishing a self-addressed stamped envelope to the court.
How to Obtain a Copy of a Will Not Filed For Probate
If a deceased person's last will and testament has not been filed for probate, it is consequently not a public court record. Therefore, only named beneficiaries, personal representatives and guardians for minor children would be allowed to see it. And if you're unsure whether or not you've been named in a will, but you strongly suspect that you have, you may take legal action to force the person in possession of the will, to file it with the appropriate probate court.
In some states it is actually a crime for a person in possession of an original will to not file it with the appropriate probate court after the person in possession of the will learns that the person who made the will has died.
It's important to realize, that not all wills succeed in governing the distribution of a deceased person's property. This can happen if all of the deceased person's property consists of non-probate assets, such as joint deeds and accounts, TOD and POD accounts, life insurance and retirement accounts such as IRAs and 401(k)s. In cases like these, the deceased person's property would pass directly to the other joint owners. In other words: the deceased person's property will effectively bypass the terms of their will. In this situation, potential beneficiaries should consult estate lawyers or trust litigators, to determine their legal rights and options.