Losing a loved one is never easy, but it’s the administrative tasks that come after that can often be even more frustrating. Whether you’re finalizing a loved one’s affairs after death or you’re interested in an extended family member’s will, you might be wondering how you can get a copy of a will yourself.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Why Might You Need a Copy of a Will?
- Are Copies of Wills Public Record?
- Steps to Find and Get a Copy of a Will Online
- Other Options If You Can’t Find a Will Online
In today’s world, it’s never been easier to access important documents both online and in person. If you need to find a will for whatever reason, it’s often easier than you think. However, how you access specific wills varies by state. Each place has its own laws about privacy around wills and estate planning documents, so there are a few steps to get started.
Whether you want to learn if someone left you money after they died or how to make sure your will is accessible to family members after you die, this guide is for you. Keep reading to learn how to find and get a copy of a will online through a step-by-step process. It’s usually a straightforward, simple process, but there are things you must know.
Why Might You Need a Copy of a Will?
First, why might someone need a copy of a will in the first place? There are many reasons for this, and the most common are:
Beneficiary: Someone might have left money to you upon their passing. You might not know if you’re the beneficiary of a will unless you’re contacted by an executor or estate lawyer.
Closure: For some families, reviewing someone’s will might bring closure after a loss.
Genealogy: Wills also play a big role in genealogy and family history research. If you’re trying to learn more about extended family, there is a lot of information to be found in wills.
While there are a lot of guides on how to write a will, there isn’t much information about what happens to that will after someone dies. Of course, the actions in the will are carried out (typically through probate), but how is this information shared with family?
In reality, unless the family is close, only the executor and estate attorneys involved know the full details of the will unless they take action using the steps below.
Are Copies of Wills Public Record?
Next, who is legally allowed to see wills? Do they count as public record? The answer varies depending on the type of will, the location of the will, and the timing. First and foremost, before a person dies, their will is considered personal, private property. You’re not entitled to see anyone’s will while they’re still living.
On the other hand, most wills are public record assuming they’ve gone through probate court. Though it sounds intimidating, probate is a common, mundane process. Probate is a procedure for passing assets to beneficiaries. Unless the assets are passed through some other type of estate planning, it’s very common for a will to go through the probate process.
When do wills pass through probate?
Probate is required both if a person dies with a will and if they die without one. In order for property to be distributed under state inheritance law, a judge must give legal permission. Each state has its own laws about when wills need to go through probate. Typically, if the estate is valued below a certain amount, there is no need for probate.
In most states, if an estate is worth over $100,000 (this includes all property, assets, accounts, etc.), probate is necessary. The only exception is if the deceased is passing their assets down through other means, like a living trust.
What if the will didn’t go through probate?
Alternatively, if the will was not filed for probate, this is not a public court record. Only named beneficiaries, guardians, and personal representatives are allowed to see these documents.
The only way to access these records would be by contacting the family or estate attorney directly. It might be possible to force the will through probate if there is reason to believe the will is in question.
Steps to Find and Get a Copy of a Will Online
Luckily, as long as the will was filed through probate court, it’s relatively easy to request a copy of these records. In most states, this can even be done online. Follow the steps below to obtain court records of someone’s will.
Step 1: Find the probate court
First, you need to know where the probate estate has been filed. This is typically in the county where the deceased person lived. It might also be where they owned real estate, especially if this was different from where they lived full-time.
You can check their death certificate or online records to determine where they lived when they died. You need to know the right probate court to begin your search.
Step 2: Search county-specific court records
Next, once you’ve narrowed down the location of the court records, it’s time to start your search. Sometimes this isn’t actually called probate court. It could go by any of these names:
- Circuit court
- Orphan’s court
- Surrogate’s court
- Probate dockets
- Probate records
Do an online search for the county’s records. For example, “King County Probate Records” is a good place to start for King County, WA. Continue your search until you have the right county courts located.
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Step 3: Understand the requirements
Once you’ve located the right court records, you should have access to how to apply to view them. While you can usually apply in person, you should also be able to submit your request by fax or mail. This is because a written, formal request is needed to verify your application.
You will need to make a written request by fax or mail to the county record office. You will also be required to pay a fee in most counties. This applies per copy, and it’s anywhere from $1 to $10 per page. Finally, provide a self-addressed stamped envelope for mailing the copies of your request back to you.
While some counties offer a written request form you can mail, some don’t. Here is a template to use to request your documents:
County Probate Court Name
County Probate Court Address
My name is [Full Name], and I am requesting copies of probate court records. My address is [Address], and my phone number is [Phone Number]. I am requesting the following records: [List records by name, include the date of filing, case number, and names of parties involved.]
I have provided the required fee as well as a self-addressed stamped envelope for mailing my request. Thank you in advance.
Step 4: Print any online records
In some courts, you might have access to copies of records online. If so, this is great news! You can typically print or make copies of any documents you find online free of charge.
Otherwise, if there are no online records, you can often see a list of documents by name. This is useful for writing your written request since you can request specific documents.
Other Options If You Can’t Find a Will Online
In some cases, you might not be able to find a will copy online. This is especially true if it was never filed for probate. In this case, you can go to the probate court in person for assistance. They can help you determine if probate was ever filed by using the individual’s full name. If a copy is found, you can typically access it here.
Otherwise, if you’re not able to go in person, you can also call the probate court. They can provide more specific advice over the phone to guide your search. Another option is to reach out to an estate attorney in the area. They can often work on your behalf to find records, though this comes at a cost.
Lastly, you can always consult with the family and executors of the deceased. This means there’s no need to go through a court at all, though they aren’t legally obligated to show you any records. If you feel you’re owed money from a will, talk to an estate planning attorney to review your options.
Find a Will Online in Minutes
In conclusion, it’s often possible to find a public record will online in just a few minutes. You don’t need to know extensive information from the will to start your search. Typically, you only need a name and date to begin. Whether they used an online will maker or a complex estate attorney, these documents are all handled the same after death.
Ultimately, this raises the important question of where to keep your will. You should always entrust your will to a loved one who will follow out your wishes. Knowing that your estate is in good hands brings a lot of peace, so start your free end-of-life plan today.