Because probate records are public court filings, anyone can obtain a copy of it. With modern technology comes the ability to locate such information, and in most cases for free.
If you are interested in gaining access to a deceased person’s will, or a summary of their estate, then you may be surprised to find out that you can probably find this information stored publicly on the Internet, or at least available to the public on request in local county databanks.
Probate records are public and can be pulled up by just about anyone unless specific steps were taken to safeguard the decedent’s privacy or explicitly remove assets from probate by distributing them through alternative means. To that end, most wills can be pulled from county records through a friend request at a minimal cost (depending on the county). The tricky part is finding the right court docket and knowing where to look.
What Are Probate Records?
Nearly every major asset that is not transferred upon death through a trust, a beneficiary clause, joint ownership, or other means must be distributed via the probate process. The probate process exists to legitimize the decedent’s last will and testament, name an executrix/executor of the estate, and legally oversee the distribution of assets after death.
Probate occurs regardless of whether the decedent had a will, but a will can help tremendously to determine who gets what. As such, in probates with a valid will, a big part of the process involves legitimizing the will and entering it into the public record. If no will exists, then probate will still occur, and distribution will be based on the state’s intestate laws in which the probate process is taking place.
Intestate laws effectively dictate in what order assets are distributed after death (usually next of kin). Probate does not begin automatically upon death. It must be started through a petition made by the decedent’s personal representative, a friend, or one of their surviving kin.
Each state has its probate code, some of which are based on the Uniform Probate Code, and others that are not. Yet despite their differences, all probate courts generally function the same way:
- A petition is filed to start the process.
- An executor or executrix is named and given certain authority over the estate’s contents (in the best interests of the decedent and their beneficiaries).
- The estate’s final affairs must be settled.
- Creditors must be notified and given time to make a claim.
- Any claims by creditors must be satisfied, and debts must be paid.
- The remainder must be distributed as per the will or intestate law.
- Disputes and arguments against the will’s validity must be brought up and settled in the probate court.
- Once the estate is distributed, it is closed.
Each probate process has its own court docket and documents attached to the process. Many of these, including the will, can be requested for viewing (unless there was a valid reason for a judge to seal the documents).
Figure Out Where Probate Was Filed
You might know what state to start looking in, but that often isn’t enough. Probate records are county-specific, and the information you are looking for will be kept in the offices of the county clerk where the probate case was filed. In addition, not all counties refer to probate courts as such and may use other terms such as the orphan’s court, surrogate court, or courts of ordinary.
Your first step to figuring out where the probate process began might be to go through public death records. Online resources, such as FamilySearch, can help you start looking at the state level and determine where someone died based on their legal name and date or year of death.
Some state-specific departments provide copies of the death certificate for a fee, which can be an easier, albeit more expensive, option than requesting the same document from the county website. However, note that this can take significant time to process. For example, electronic sonic submission for a death occurring before 1993 in California can take up to 12 weeks to process.
Do a Thorough Online Search
Once you have a little more information, you might be able to find a court docket through a simple Google search. Keep in mind that you will need the correct county, and include or try out the terms probate court, probate records, court records, probate dockets, surrogate court, or courts of ordinary.
This should bring you to the county’s respective court records search, which is often under the purview of the county clIn addition, these country-specific searches will bring you closer to the exact docket or probate records you want to obtain a copy of.
Get in Touch With the County Clerk
If you want to obtain a specific document under a probate case, you can often do so by requesting the respective county clerk’s office. Depending on the county, this can be done electronically (online), via post, or by fax.
Some documents can be obtained for free. Others, often including the will, require a copying fee. This ranges from a dollar to a few dollars per page. If making an online request is not an option, the county may require you to show up in person.
What If Probate Never Occurred?
In this case, you would want to get in touch with an estate planning professional immediately to discuss your next steps, especially if you knew the decedent and have access to their will or were, at one point, responsible as their personal representative. Ignoring your duties to file for probate after a decedent’s passing can mean consequences such as making you financially liable for the accruing costs of the estate’s bills and expenses.
If you are looking for public probate records as a matter of personal interest and can’t seem to find them online, then your best bet will be to work with an estate planning professional in the county of the person’s death. They may charge you a fee to help you get the information you want, but their professional connections will often make it a painless process.