When a loved one dies, you might need to know whether they had a will. There are a number of reasons why you may need to find a will:
- You want to know whether you can file the will in court to begin the probate process.
- You want to find out if the will has already been probated after death.
- You know the court has already probated the will, but you want to see what property was left and to whom that person left it.
According to the US Will Registry, 67% of wills are lost or misplaced. In all of these cases, there are ways to find these deceased people’s will. Here's how.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How Can You Find Out If Someone Has a Will to Begin With?
- How to Find a Loved One’s Will
- How to Find Someone’s Will in Public Records or Probate Court
How Can You Find Out If Someone Has a Will To Begin with?
If someone close to you has died and you are trying to find out about a will, there are several logical places you can look and some people you can ask for information.
When someone writes a will, it’s usually given to an attorney, stored in a safe place or hidden.
If you’re searching for someone’s will, it’s best to begin your search with the most common places that people tend to put their wills. Here are the most logical steps to follow as you try to find someone’s will.
How to Find a Loved One’s Will
People must do one of two things to have a will:
- Have an attorney write it.
- Create it themselves.
To write it themselves, they have to either:
- Complete a will “form” printed from an online will service.
- Type or write it by hand.
Traditionally, most people go to an attorney to draft their wills. This occurs less now that “form wills” are available online. Form wills are standard, pre-drafted simple will forms that you can print off of the internet and fill in the blanks to make a valid will.
People generally keep the wills they create themselves in their homes, in a locked safe or other “safe” place. However, many people keep their will with other important papers in their desk, drawer, or file cabinet.
If possible, literally rummage through the decedent’s papers and personal belongings. You should also check any secret places, like under a bed, in the back of a closet, or in a personal safe.
If you're sure the will isn't in the home, follow these steps
Step 1: Contact their attorney
People who go to an attorney to draft their will usually leave the original, executed version of their will with their attorney. A probate court will not accept a copy of a will—it will only accept the original.
If the client ever wants to change or revoke terminate the will before they die, the attorney will have the most recent valid will to work with. If the client dies, the attorney will know who the executor is (the executor is the person named in the will to handle the estate of the decedent).
If you don't know the name of the decedent’s attorney, you should ask family members and friends if the decedent might have had an attorney. If they don’t know, search the decedent’s personal belongings for either a will or any evidence of dealings with an attorney or a law firm.
You should search the decedent’s:
- Personal papers
- File cabinets
- Address book
- Charge accounts
These may contain something that indicates the decedent was in contact with an attorney before they died, such as:
- Legal letterhead
- Legal envelope
- Attorney’s business card
- Invoice for attorney fees
- Meeting with attorney scheduled on a calendar
Contact the attorney you’ve identified to see if they wrote a will for the decedent. If they did not, they may have referred the decedent to another attorney who did.
If you learn that the decedent’s lawyer passed away or retired, the local or American Bar Association may be able to tell you if another lawyer took over and how to find her.
Step 2: Search a will registry
Another resource that could identify a will or at least the name of an attorney that the decedent may have used to draft a will is a will registry. A will registry is a service that a person uses after writing a will.
The service doesn't retain a copy of the will but, rather, retains the location where the will is kept as well as the name of the attorney who drafted the will. The service serves this very purpose of avoiding a situation in which someone dies, but no one knows where the will is.
Some services are run by the state, others are personally operated and may require a small fee to conduct an online search.
Step 3: Ask family and friends
It’s not unusual that a person tells a family member or close friend that they executed a will and discloses where they’re keeping it “in case anything happens.”
You should inquire with as many family members and friends of the decedent as possible to ask whether the decedent had a will or an attorney.
Step 4: Look in a bank or safe deposit box
Many people put their wills in a safe deposit box in a bank. If you can find out where the decedent banked, you should inquire there for the bank manager to allow you to check the decedent’s safe deposit box.
There are procedures to be followed to get into someone’s safe deposit box, but this is a good option.
Step 5: Check-in with the nursing home
If the decedent resided in a nursing care facility at the end of life, you could check with the nursing home to see what, if any, of the decedent’s personal belongings the facility may still have.
When a nursing home resident dies and there’s no family member who spent time with the resident on a daily basis, the nursing home may remain in possession of the decedent’s personal items for some time. These items could include a will.
Step 6: Inquire at the probate court
As a possible last resort, you could inquire at the probate court in the county where the decedent resided to see whether an executor or someone else has already filed the decedent’s will with the probate court.
There are a small number of states that allow a person to file their will with the probate court while they are still alive. This is called “pre-mortem” or “ante-mortem” probate.
If the decedent resided in a state that recognizes this legal concept, it is possible that the decedent’s will has already been filed with the court.
How to Find Someone’s Will in Public Records or Probate Court
If the decedent’s will is already filed with the court, or if probate has already been completed, then the decedent’s will becomes a public record preserved by the court.
This means that the decedent’s will is accessible to anyone who wants to see it. If you can obtain a file number from the executor of the estate (if you know who that is), it will make it easier to obtain the will.
However, if you appear at or contact the courthouse in the county where the decedent resided when they died, you should be able to obtain the decedent’s will just by submitting the decedent’s name, date of birth, date of death, or whatever identifying information the court clerk requires.
Often, just the decedent’s name is sufficient. You may have to pay a small copying fee to obtain a copy of the will, but if the will has been filed and probated, you can obtain a copy.
Look for a Decedent’s Will
Trying to locate a will that you are not even sure exists can seem like trying to grasp the wind. However, when people draft wills, they usually do the same things with them:
- Leave them with their attorney.
- Keep them with other important papers in their home.
- Secure them in a bank safe deposit box.
- Hide them.
If you don’t know who the decedent’s attorney was or where the decedent banked, family and friends of the decedent often know.
If not, you can always inquire with a will registry or with the probate court in the county where the decedent lived. There are always at least six promising places to look or to obtain information that may point you in the right direction.
If you don't let your loved ones have to look for you will after you die, consider creating a will online and storing a digital and physical copy. Here are your options for creating a will below.
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