A death in the family brings sorrow, and it also brings complications over inheritance. A last will and testament is the deceased family member's final communication to the world about her life, and few lines are more painful than that dividing the heirs from the disinherited. Although the will executor eventually contacts heirs to distribute assets, this can be months, and even years, after the date of death, depending upon the complexity of the estate. You can find out the will terms far earlier by making a short trip to the county courthouse.
Determine the address of the court where the will is in probate, usually the probate court in the county in which the testator died. Alternatively, try the probate court in the county the testator resided before death. In some jurisdictions, like Los Angeles, a special probate court phone number provides case information over the telephone. As a last resort, ask next of kin where the will is filed.
Take the death certificate -- a public record available from vital statistics in the jurisdiction -- to the jurisdictional courthouse or, if you don't have the certificate, you will need the full name of the deceased and his date and place of death. In many jurisdictions, the general clerk's office files all legal documents including probate documents. Ask the clerk to pull the probate file. Generally, you review the file in a nearby location with a clerk observing, but different jurisdictions impose different restrictions. A probate file is an official court record; do not mark documents or take the file from the courthouse.
Look through the probate file for the last will and testament; it is likely one of the early documents. Review it in the courthouse or obtain a copy from the court clerk and read the will at home. Heirs are generally not listed separately, so search the entire bequest section for your name or words referencing you (for example,"my sister Sophie's only daughter.")
Obtain the name and phone number of the executor from the will or probate file. An executor files the will in probate, collects assets, pays the testator's outstanding bills and distributes the remainder of the estate according to the terms of the will. The testator names the executor in the will and her name is listed in most probate documents. Call the executor and ask questions to confirm whether the testator left you a devise in the will.
Carry as little as possible when you arrive at the court. Many courts have security check points and visitors with parcels may be delayed.
Return the probate file to the clerk before leaving the courthouse. Removing court files from the courthouse is a serious offense.
- Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles: Probate Frequently Asked Questions
- Clerk of the Circuit Court, Pinellas County, Florida: Probate of Estates
- New York State Unified Court System. "Last Will and Testament." Accessed April 8, 2020.
- Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara. "About Probate - How to Probate a Decedent's Estate." Accessed April 8, 2020.
- Middlesex County New Jersey. "Surrogate." Accessed April 8, 2020.
- Hawaii State Judiciary. "Circuit Court Filing Fees and Costs," Page 2. Accessed April 8, 2020.
- Middlesex County New Jersey. "FAQ Surrogate - How Can I Get a Copy of a Will?" Accessed April 8, 2020.
- Huber Law Group. "Obtaining Records." Accessed April 8, 2020.
Teo Spengler is an attorney, specializing in personal finance and business writing for the past 15 years. Her personal finance work has appeared in numerous online publications including Go Banking Rates, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, the Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. She holds a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley, as well as an M.A. in English and an M.F.A. in fiction.