Wills are a confidential document until the person dies. Once the will is admitted as a will or a small inheritance, it becomes a public document that anyone can see and read. Wills only become a public record after they have been submitted for legalization. Wills are only part of the public record if they are admitted to a probate court or small estate. Wills are confidential while the people who wrote them stay alive.
Evidentiary wills are in the public domain, which means that anyone can appear in court and see them in full. A person who has reason to believe that it could be included in a will can therefore examine it. Although wills are often intensely personal by design, they become public domain sometime after the death of the testator (the person to whom the will belongs).Before that time, they are not legal documents and are the private property of the testator. With some exceptions, wills are generally required to be filed with the court for the probate process.
Once the court has possession, wills begin to be channeled through the probate process, eventually filed and made available for public access. If the person who died had assets that were not required to go through the estate, then there may be no need for an inheritance procedure; his assets would pass to the beneficiaries and heirs outside the estate. Assets that pass outside the estate are not public record. Assets that pass out of succession are generally assets that are jointly held or have a designated beneficiary. Examples include real estate, bank, stock and other financial accounts, title to motor vehicles or other vessels, life insurance policies, 401 (k), and different types of retirement accounts.
Property that a decedent transfers to a trust is passed to the decedent's beneficiaries at the time of the decedent's death outside of legalization and is not public record either. If the testator has died but the will you are seeking has not been tested, it is not yet a public record. However, you may still be allowed access. If you are a beneficiary named in the will or a guardian of a minor who is a beneficiary, your state's laws will likely allow you access to it. Many people feel a great sense of accomplishment and peace of mind after creating a last will and testament.
Once your will and related documents are filed, they become public court records, meaning anyone can go to the local probate court and ask to see them. Clients often ask estate planning lawyers how to get copies of their loved ones' last wills and testaments. After death and the opening of a probate proceeding, which is necessary to process the will, the will becomes a public registry. A common question asked by estate planning lawyers is how to obtain a copy of a deceased person's last will and testament or other records from the probate court. If you die and leave a will, it can become a public record if your will is submitted to a probate court. You can choose to keep your last will and testament in a safe deposit box, but you'll need to make sure the executor can access it.
In most cases, probate begins regardless of whether or not there is a will, but a last will and testament are necessary if you want to direct the estate after you have died. The terms of a will and testament are private until the testator, or the maker of the will, dies; you cannot know the contents of a living person's will unless you show it to them. Some courts keep wills in large folders with other wills that became public records around the same time. The assets of people who die without a will are also in the public record, and you can get a copy of a non-will file in the Surrogacy Court. Once the testator has died, if that will has been filed with the probate court in the county in which the deceased resided, the court will open the will and it becomes a public registry.
During this time, only the executor and designated beneficiaries have access to the will, which will not become part of the public registry until the executor has performed his duties and legalization is completed.