Are Wills Open to the Public

Are wills open to the public? The simple answer is yes, they are. However, wills are not made public until after the testator, the person whose will it is, passes away. After the death of the will's owner, the will must go through probate court. The probate court proceedings determine whether or not the will is valid, make note of the deceased's property and debts, payany debts or taxes and finally distribute anything remaining to relatives and other inheritors. After the probate proceedings have concluded, the will then enters the public record.

Who Can See a Will?
Once a will becomes open, anyone who so desires can request to see it. However, it is not as easy as strolling into a county courthouse and asking the Register of Wills to pull up a will for you. Accessibility and restrictions to public records vary from state to state.  For instance, until recently the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had a strict Open Records Law that required one to prove a document was in the public record before they would be allowed to access it. However, Pennsylvania revised its Right-to-Know Law in 2008 so that all records are now assumed to be public, with certain exceptions.

The Internet has made accessing public records, including wills, easier. Several companies have arisen in recent years that will search public records for clients, for a fee.

Living Trusts are Not Open
Unlike wills, living trusts do not become part of the public record, nor do they have to go through probate. Living trusts transfer the trustee's property directly to beneficiaries without the need for court proceedings. Because they avoid probate and don't become part of the public record, living trusts may be preferable to wills for those who are older and have a large amount of wealth. However, even if you have a living trust, you may still want to draft a will to account for any property acquired before your death that is not included in your living trust.

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