You’re diving into your work as an executor. You’re pulling together a list of assets, and getting ready to file the Will with the probate court. And suddenly you think to yourself, Wait a minute. Is all of this information going to be...public?
The short answer is yes, probate records are part of the public record. Here’s what you need to know.
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Is a Will a public record?
A Will becomes public record after a probate case has been filed with the probate court. That means a Will isn’t public record before the testator (the person who writes the Will) dies, and it’s not public record before it’s filed with the probate court.
Most estates need to be probated, so most Wills do become part of the public record. Probate is the process through which the assets of an estate are distributed — to creditors, to pay taxes, and to heirs. A probate court appoints a personal representative to administer the estate, either based on the name provided in the Will or in order of priority based on intestate succession if the deceased did not have a Will.
The court then oversees administration of the estate, and the documents created during that process become the probate record.
How does someone access probate documents?
Once a probate case has been opened, anyone can see documents in the case file or get copies by going to or contacting the local probate court where the probate occurred (or is occurring).
Some counties have digitized court records so that someone could find a probate record as easily as tapping in a search term on their keyboard. Other counties have been slower to move to digital records, and someone would have to go to the courthouse or get a mailed or faxed copy of the records.
Even counties that offer online access to probate records may not have all the documents from the case available online. They may only have a summary of the case. Other documents could be obtained by visiting or calling the courthouse.
Generally, to access records a person needs the last name of the person who died and their date of death. They may have to pay a small fee to get or make copies of documents in the record.
What is included in a probate record?
A probate record includes any document the court created and any document submitted to the court. These generally include:
The petition for probate
Letters testamentary or letters of administration
A final accounting
The records will contain information about the deceased, the identities of beneficiaries, and any legal actions that occurred in association with the estate. Some court records may also provide names and contact information for beneficiaries, creditors, and the executor.
If the Will is contested, the probate record will be more extensive and could include complaints, discovery requests and responses, as well as transcripts of depositions or hearings. A person reviewing probate records may be able to see who a Beneficiary is, where they live, and how much they inherited.
People can access information about:
What the deceased owned. As the executor, you have to create an inventory of assets for the probate court — everything the deceased owned, from jewelry to stock certificates. That inventory is part of the probate record and is available to the public.
Who the deceased owed. The inventory may also include a list of the deceased’s debts — who they owed money to and how much they owed.
Who the executor is. Your name, and perhaps your address or other contact information, will be on documents in the probate record, including the Will and letters testamentary or letters of administration.
Who inherits the estate. If there was a Will, that document is included in the probate record, and someone could see who the named beneficiaries were. Even without a Will, the record will usually contain a final accounting done by the executor or administrator. That final accounting would show not only who inherited but what (or how much) they inherited.
How can I keep these probate records private?
Unfortunately, once someone dies whose estate must be probated, there is almost nothing that can keep those probate documents from becoming part of the public record.
In the rarest of cases, a probate judge can seal a probate record if they find a compelling reason to do so (like when an Oklahoma judge thought the probate record might unfairly prejudice a jury against a defendant who was being tried for his father’s murder). It almost never happens, and it’s definitely not something to rely on.
So the probate case you’re serving as executor for will be a part of the public record. The best thing you can do is design your own estate plan so your loved ones can avoid probate and keep your (and their) information private.
At Trust & Will, we’re here to help you keep things simple. You can create a fully customizable, state-specific Estate Plan from the comfort of your own home in just 20 minutes. Take our free quiz to see where you should get started, or compare our different estate planning options today!
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