A common question asked of estate planning attorneys is how to obtain a copy of a deceased person's last will and testament or other probate court records. Because probate files are public court records that anyone can read, if a will has been filed for probate then you should be able to obtain a copy of it. And with modern technology comes the ability to locate information about a deceased person's estate online, and in most cases for absolutely free.
But while you may not be able to view copies of the actual will and other documents that have been filed with the probate court for free (many courts have started charging for the ability to view their documents), at the very least, you should be able to see a list of the documents that have been filed, who has been named as the executor of the estate, which attorney the executor has hired, and the name of the judge presiding over the case.
Some courts even list the names of all of the creditors and beneficiaries of the estate. This will then give you the ability to request copies of the will and any other documents you are interested in viewing from the probate clerk's office, or you can try contacting the executor or the executor's attorney for additional information.
Find Out Where a Probate Estate Has Been Filed
How do you determine the appropriate probate court where an estate is being or has been, probated? In general, an estate is probated in the county where the deceased person lived at the time of his or her death, or, in some cases, the county where the deceased person owned real estate. Check online for the correct name of the county by plugging in the name of the city where the deceased person lived or owned real estate via a city-county search.
Locate Online Records and Request Copies
Once you have located the appropriate county where the probate estate should be administered, a further online search can be done for that county's probate court or probate court dockets. This can be tricky because in some states the probate court is not actually called the probate court, it could be referred to as the "circuit court," "surrogate's court," "orphan's court," or any other number of courts.
Be persistent. Since probate occurs in each and every county across the United States, chances are you will be able to locate the appropriate court's online information.
Here are some searches that you can try:
- "_________ (insert appropriate name) County probate records"
- "_________ (insert appropriate name) County probate court"
- "_________ (insert appropriate name) County probate dockets"
- "_________ (insert appropriate name) County court records"
Once you have located the appropriate county and viewed the probate court docket online, usually the steps involved in obtaining a copy of a will or other probate document directly from the probate court will include the following:
- Appearing in person and asking for a copy of the will or other probate documents, or making a written request by fax or mail if applying in person is not feasible.
- Paying a copying fee for the number of pages that the will or other probate document contains. These fees usually range from $1 to a few dollars per page.
- Providing a self-addressed stamped envelope for mailing the copies if the request is not made in person.
What to Do if You Cannot Locate Probate Records Online
If you do not have any luck in locating the appropriate probate court's dockets online, then you can try the following:
- Go to the probate court in person and ask for assistance in locating the documents. In most cases, the clerk will be able to look up the estate information by using the decedent's legal name, and if an estate has been opened, you will be able to view the actual probate file and request copies of applicable documents.
- Call the probate court and ask how to obtain copies of documents. Some probate clerks will be very helpful, while others not so much.
- Call an estate planning attorney's office in the area near the applicable probate court and ask if they will assist you in obtaining copies of probate documents from the local probate court. The office will most likely charge a fee for their services, but if you do not live close to the area, this will save you from the travel expenses that will be incurred to travel to the court yourself.
If you are unsuccessful after trying all of the above suggestions, your chances are that a probate estate has not been opened for the decedent in question. If you believe that a probate estate should have been opened, you should consult with an estate planning attorney in the area where the decedent lived in order to determine all of your options.