You have several options to find out if someone had a will:
- Ask family members and friends. Many times after someone executes a will, they give the original will to a close friend or family member for safekeeping. Or, they might tell a friend or family member that they have made a will, what that will generally says, and where they have the will stored.
- Contact their attorney. If you know that the decedent used a certain attorney, either to draft the will or for some other purpose, you can call the attorney and ask if they prepared a will for the decedent. The attorney might not tell you what the will says, but they will likely disclose whether a will was prepared.
- Look through their house. Do not limit yourself to the decedent’s desk or where you think they kept important papers. Sometimes people hide their wills to keep them “safe.” Wills have been found behind furniture, inside walls, under mattresses, in freezers, and even inside vehicles. The point is, look everywhere to find out if someone has a will in their home.
- Attempt to access safe deposit boxes. Many people maintain a safe deposit box at a bank, and keep important documents and items in the box. If you know where the decedent banked, contact the bank and ask if they had a safe deposit box.
Are Wills Public Record?
Not unless they are filed with the court, which generally happens after death. Some states do provide for pre-death filing of a will.
Just because someone makes a will, does not mean that you will be able to find it in the public records. Most people do not file their wills with the court during their lifetimes. Other people file someone’s will after that person’s death. This makes sense, because wills are ambulatory, meaning that someone can change their will at any time. You generally don’t want a will to be public record that is not actually your final will.
To find out if someone has a will before they die, the best thing to do is simply ask. To find out if someone has a will after they die, follow the suggestions above, or investigate to see if the will has been made a part of the public record.
How To Find a Will in Public Records
To find a will in public records:
- Determine in what county the decedent resided. A decedent’s estate is probated in the county where the decedent was a resident.
- Go to the clerk of court website for that county and look up decedent’s name. Most courts have a website. You can likely find it by typing in something like: “(name of county, state) clerk of court.” You will need to locate “court records” or something similar on the website, and then type in your decedent’s first and last name. If a probate has been opened, or a will filed, you will see this in the docket on the court website. Sometimes you can access the will itself online. If not, you can find valuable information, such as the case number, the name of any attorneys, and if there is a personal representative appointed.
- Alternatively, go to or contact the county courthouse. If you cannot find the will online, then go to the courthouse and ask one of the probate clerks to help you and obtain a copy of the will in person. You might have to pay a copying fee. If you are not local, call the clerk of court and give them the name of the decedent and the case number so that they can locate the will and send you a copy.
What If You Cannot Find A Will?
If you cannot find out if the decedent has a will by the methods described above, you have a couple of options:
- You can monitor the clerk of court website. Just because you did not find a will filed when you first looked on the clerk of court website, does not mean that will is not going to be filed. You can regularly monitor the clerk of court website for any will filed, or probate opened, in decedent’s name.
- File a document in the probate court entitling you to notice when someone tries to open the decedent’s estate. In many states, if you are interested in being notified when someone tries to open up a probate for a decedent, you can file a document entitling you to notice. For example, in Florida, this document is called a caveat. By filing a caveat, no will can be admitted to probate until you have received notice and have had an opportunity to object. In New York, you can compel production of a will.
If you cannot find a will among the decedent’s possessions or filed with the court, this does not mean that no will exists. The decedent could have used an attorney that you are not familiar with, and the attorney may have the will. Eventually, when the attorney learns of the decedent’s death, the attorney will be required to file any original will with the clerk of court. If an original will cannot be found, but a copy of the will is found, then most states (including New Jersey, Texas, Ohio, Illinois, Florida, and New York have procedures for admitting a lost will to probate.