How can I find out if a will exists?

Regardless of whether someone dies with or without a will, his or her entire estate must go through probate. Probate is a legal proceeding where a judge determines either the legitimacy of a will or the legitimate heirs in the absence of a will. In this fast-paced society where people are constantly moving, it is completely plausible that an heir mentioned in someone’s will cannot be located. When this happens, finding out if a will exists is very important to ensure you receive your inheritance.

How to Find Out if a Will Exists

The first thing to do is to find out if a will has gone through probate. If you know where the decedent died, contact the probate court in that county. If a will was filed in the court, it will almost always be available to the public. In other words, you can obtain a copy of the will for the court’s specified fee. If you live far away from the place where a will would have been filed in probate, a local lawyer or legal service bureau often can arrange to do a search and get a copy for you for a relatively modest fee. If you cannot find a will on record, the individual may have died without one. In this case, any assets will pass through a process called “intestate succession.”

Understanding Intestate Succession

In intestate succession, the property passes to beneficiaries according to the laws of the state where the person died or where the property was located. Probate of an intestate estate is also usually a matter of public record and you can find out who received property by reviewing the file or getting copies of relevant documents.

Excluding Property from Probate

In some circumstances, the deceased may not have had assets that passed through probate, even though he or she had property. If the deceased used other ways of excluding property from probate, then the property passes to others outside the probate procedure. These methods include joint ownership of property with a right of survivorship, named beneficiaries on insurance policies, pension/retirement plans, and the use of certain trusts.

Property that the deceased transfers to certain trusts is no longer owned by the deceased at his/her death, so the property is not subject to probate. Trust assets are passed to beneficiaries through the procedures outlined in the trust documents. The operation of trusts and other property transfers outside probate are not part of the public record, so you may not be able to trace them.