Some believe that America would need only a third of its lawyers were it not for the area of wills and estates. This legal realm is particularly prone to disputes, ambiguity and litigation. Perhaps because of this reality, people opt to file their wills with their county clerk. In so doing, they aid the process of probate, in states where probate is required.
Probate involves the confirmation, valuation and inventorying of the deceased party's property, as well as paying off debts and liens. In the 21st century, recorded wills may or may not be visible online. It largely depends on a jurisdiction's preference and capacity.
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Find a Will Online
Essential estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are posted online in a limited number of jurisdictions. The key to finding the will is finding the appropriate court's website. If there is an online index or search option, your chances of finding a will or a related document just got stronger. There are no guarantees, however.
As there may be time lags between filing and recording, there may also be substantial gaps between recording and online posting. Be patient when searching online as some websites are archaic and difficult to use.
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Is a Will Public Record?
As noted above, a recorded will is important for the probate process. The testator, i.e., the owner of the property to be disbursed, or trustee is making the will a matter of public record. Doing so prevents unauthorized alteration and it can inhibit false claims about the testator's and decedent's intentions, among other benefits.
Filing a will with the county makes it a matter of public record and, therefore, easier for a court to resolve contests. Most states demand that wills be filed with counties before or immediately after death of the testator. Think of this parallel: cohabitants can live together for years and then break up. If they disagree on how to split their assets and sue one another, a court has less legal room to maneuver since the relationship was unofficial. By contrast, a judge has more law to fall back on with a married couple whose union is recorded.
In short, most wills are indeed public documents, but that does not mean they are easily accessible.
Find a Will When Someone Dies?
If a testator files a will ahead of his or her death, the recorded document can frequently be found in the records maintained by the county clerk or register of wills. In some instances, counties are so backed up that it can take months before a registered will shows up among the recorded documents. While this delayed recording does not affect the will's legal status, it definitely slows down the process of discovering its provisions.
In states where probate is mandated, there is usually a window in which a trustee or executor can file the will, in many cases 10 days after the testator has died. So, the will is not always immediately accessible to those searching for it among public records. Wills do turn up, though, eventually. Still, this reality should prompt testators to file their wills upon completion.
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County courthouses and administration buildings are open on weekdays during regular business hours for people to search for wills. For low-tech offices, they may offer bound indexes and catalogs that will help you to find the document in question, and employees may even offer a hand. More state-of-the-art facilities, meanwhile, may offer computerized catalogs for faster searching. Yet for many interested persons, this approach can be impractical due to time constraints or physical distance from the county seat. They may seek to find a will online.
Adam Luehrs is a writer during the day and a voracious reader at night. He focuses mostly on finance writing and has a passion for real estate, credit card deals, and investing.