How To Find a Deceased Person's Will

Wills aren’t always a matter of public record

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When someone dies, you may need to find their will. This could be because you know you’re the executor of the estate, or you simply want to find out to whom the deceased person left their possessions. If the will isn’t in the most obvious places in your loved one’s home, you may need to do a bit of digging, especially if you’re not sure if they even had a will. Here’s how to go about it.

Key Takeaways

  • Wills only become public records after they’ve been filed with a probate court.
  • Getting a copy of a will after probate has begun is simple and possible for anyone.
  • Heirs and beneficiaries usually are entitled to a copy of the will, even if it hasn’t been filed with the court.

Is a Will Public Record?

When you write a will, it isn’t automatically in the public record. This is true whether you’ve written it yourself or a professional has. “Even if you’ve created a will, there’s no central repository for registering it,” said Christopher Olsen, an estate lawyer based in San Diego, California, in a phone interview with The Balance. “It’s only once someone has passed and their will has been filed with the court that it becomes public record.”

How To Find Out if Someone Made a Will

If you can’t find a will after the death of a loved one, it might still be that they wrote one and stored a copy in a safe place or shared the location with someone else that you don’t know about. There are a few avenues you can pursue to find out if the person even wrote a will:

  • Question the person’s other close contacts, including family and friends, to see if they know if there’s a will or have access to it. Check the person’s home and vehicles as well as any other locations it could be stored, such as safe deposit boxes or private offices, if you have access to them. 
  • Check their computer, email, and digital files to see if they saved a copy there.
  • If the person had a lawyer, you can contact the attorney and find out if they helped prepare a will for the decedent. If so, you may be able to get a copy from the lawyer.
  • Check to see if the deceased’s will is on file with a state, county, or city register of wills.
  • Check websites such as the U.S. Will Registry, which allows you to register your will for free.

Getting a Copy of a Will in Probate

If you’re still not able to get your hands on the will and you’re not the executor, there’s a good chance the executor will eventually file the will with a probate court. Once that happens, it becomes a public record, and it’s fairly simple to get a copy of it.

“As it’s a public record, anyone is able to access it,” said Olsen. “You’ll simply need to go and pull it from the court records.”

You can get a copy from the county court in which the estate is being probated. The estate typically is probated in the county where the decedent was living when they passed away. But if the decedent had property in a different state, the will may need to be probated there in addition to or instead of the state where the decedent lived. Depending on where you live, you may be able to order the will from the county court online, in person, by calling the court, or by mailing in a request.


Wills in probate can be seen by anyone. This means that even if you’re a complete stranger, it’s possible for you to see the details of a will.

Getting a Copy of a Will That’s Not in Probate

So what happens if the will isn’t in probate? That depends on whether the will writer is deceased. There aren’t any foolproof methods for acquiring a will if it isn’t public. If the person is still alive, you can ask to see it. If they’re already dead, the situation becomes a bit trickier.

Not everyone is entitled to a copy of the will. Generally speaking, the executor of the will or the personal representative of the estate will decide who is able to view it. However, any immediate family members or beneficiaries designated in the will can expect to receive a copy of the deceased person’s will if they ask for a copy from the executor.


You typically can find out who the executor is by getting a copy of the decedent’s death certificate from the county registrar.

Once you find out who has the will, you’ll want to coordinate them in order to get a copy. If necessary, you can reach out to a lawyer for help.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Who is entitled to see a copy of a will?

The will’s beneficiaries as well as the executor or personal representative of the estate are entitled to see a copy of a will. In some states, immediate family members may also be entitled to a copy, even if they aren’t named in the will. If the will is in the public record, anyone can see it.

What is a certified copy of a will?

A certified copy of a will is one that has been identified as an accurate copy of the original will by certain institutions. You can request certified copies of documents maintained by the court. In some states, notaries can also certify a copy of a will for you.

How much does a copy of a will cost?

The cost to acquire a copy of a will depends on your situation. If you’re grabbing a copy from a family member or the executor, don’t expect to pay any fees. But requesting a copy from the court may cost money; the exact charge will depend on the type of copy and the court’s location.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The U.S. Will Registry. “How To Find a Last Will.”

  2. Association of the Bar of the City of New York. “Probate Proceeding.”

  3. The Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara. “About Probate - How To Probate a Decedent's Estate.”

  4. The Law Offices of Daniel A. Hunt. “How Do I Find Out if I Am the Beneficiary in a California Will?

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