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Probate court documentsProbate is the process of proving a will left by an individual. The individual is called a decedent in the legal language of probate administration and estate planning. The decedent is the deceased individual. If a will was not left by a decedent, then that decedent is said to have died intestate or without a will. During and after a probate proceeding has taken place, you may have some need to read the will or find out about other aspects of the probate proceeding. Your need may arise from business dealings or personal situations. Probate records are also frequently accessed by researchers into family history. Here’s what you need to know about finding probate records online.

Everyone needs a will so their wishes will be followed and to spare loved ones additional stress. A financial planner can be an invaluable resource as you document your final wishes.

Where Are Probate Records Located?

Here are some steps to follow to find probate documents:

  • Determine the date of death as close as possible.
  • Determine the place of death. The decedent may have died in a location away from where they lived. For example, if you know the city where the person lived, you may have to do a search to look up the county.
  • Check with the county clerk to determine which court or other entity handled probate at the time and place of the decedent’s death.
  • Determine where the surviving records are stored and whether they are available online. The county clerk may be able to tell you that.
  • Search the court or other entity records both before and for a time period after the death of the decedent. You may find probably actions filed years after the date of death.

An estate is usually probated where the decedent lived, worked or owned property. Probate records are usually in the offices of the county clerks in each county of the state. You have to know the county or counties in which to look. As long as you know the town or city, you can find what county the town or city is in through an online search. After that you find the county, do an online search for probate records in that county in the appropriate state. You should get a page for courthouse records and you can find the menu on that page for probate records. That link should tell you exactly what you need to do to access the will and other probate records for the estate of anyone who has passed away for some time period.

You may then have to call the county clerk’s office or alternatively, fill out the appropriate forms online and submit them. You should then learn what records you can receive and by what means.

Are Probate Records Available to the Public?

Notary's stampProbate records are available to the public, but they may not be available for free. Many county clerk’s offices have started charging a nominal fee for viewing them. You should be able to find probate records for both intestate cases and cases where the individual died with a will. Probate records and a decedent’s last will and testament are public court documents. Even if you can’t read the will and other documents for free, you can usually find a list of all the documents that have been filed for an estate that was probated.

You can usually view the name of the attorney, the name of the executor of the estate, the name of the judge presiding over the case and a complete list of the types of documents filed with the estate. Since you will know what is available, you will know what to ask for when you either submit the proper forms online or call the county clerk’s office for the records.

Other Methods to Access Probate Records

The Church of Latter-Day Saints has amazing resources for family history researchers and others who need access to probate records. You can search their historical records for free. You can use their family search database to help you determine the date of death and where they were buried. This will give you a starting point regarding where to look for probate records. Sometimes, documentation will be attached to the person’s record. You may find a death certificate or even a will or the proceedings of probate. All you have to do is establish a free account.

Ancestry’s family history site also has vast resources for you to find the date of death, place of burial and where the decedent lived and worked. You will often find historical documents like probate records attached to individuals on Ancestry. Ancestry is a subscription site.

The Bottom Line

Elderly man signs probate documents

Not all probate records are available online, but many are. You first have to isolate the date of death and place of death of the decedent to locate in what county and state that the probate records may be located. Then, you check with the county clerk’s office and find out what does exist online. If you can’t find online probate records through the courthouse, then you may want to use a service like Family Search Database or Ancestry.

Tips for Estate Planning

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/stocknshares, ©iStock.com/Ilya Burdun, ©iStock.com/Arindam Ghosh

Rosemary Carlson
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