A common question that I'm asked as an estate planning attorney is how to obtain a copy of a deceased person's last will and testament or other probate court filings. Because probate records are public court records that anyone can read, if a will has been filed for probate then you should be able to obtain a copy of it. And with modern technology comes the ability to locate information about a deceased person's estate online, and in most cases for absolutely free. But while you may not be able to view copies of the actual will and other documents that have been filed with the probate court for free (many courts have started charging for the ability to view documents), at the very least you will be able to see a list of the documents that have been filed, who has been named as the executor of the estate, which attorney the executor has hired, and the name of the judge presiding over the case. Some courts even list the names of all of the beneficiaries of the estate. This will then give you the ability to request copies of the will and any other documents you are interested in viewing from the probate clerk's office, or you can try contacting the executor or the executor's attorney for additional information.
How to Find Out Where a Probate Estate Has Been Filed
One side note - how do you determine the appropriate probate court where an estate is being, or has been, probated? An estate is probated in the county where the deceased person lived at the time of his or her death, or, in some cases, the county where the deceased person owned real estate. Use the following website to locate the correct name of the county by plugging in the name of the city where the deceased person lived or owned real estate: City - County Search.
How to Request Copies of Probate Court Documents
Once you have located the appropriate county, an online search can be done for that county's probate court or probate court dockets. This can be tricky because in some states the probate court is not actually called the probate court, it could be referred to as the "circuit court," "surrogate's court," "orphan's court," or any other number of courts. But be persistent - since probate occurs in each and every county across the country, chances are you will be able to locate the appropriate court's online information.
Once you have located the appropriate county, usually the steps involved in obtaining a copy of a will or other probate document directly from the probate court will include the following:
- Appearing in person and asking for a copy of the will or other probate document, or making a written request by fax or mail if applying in person is not feasible.
- Paying a copying fee for the number of pages that the will or other probate document contains. These fees usually range from $1.00 to a few dollars per page.
- Providing a self-addressed, stamped envelope for mailing the copies if the request is not made in person.
How to View the Online Probate Dockets for Estates Probated in Massachusetts
If the estate you are interested in is being probated in one of the fourteen counties located in Massachusetts - Barnstable, Berkshire, Bristol, Dukes, Essex, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, Middlesex, Nantucket, Norfolk, Plymouth, Suffolk, and Worcester - then follow the links and instructions provided below to view Massachusetts probate court dockets online.
- Click on the following link to the website for online access to Massachusetts probate dockets and records: Massachusetts Trial Court Internet.
- Click on Click Here to search public records.
- Next to "Court Department," click on "Probate and Family Court."
- "Court Division" will pop up next to "Court Department." Click on the applicable county name. (If you are not sure in which county the estate is being probate, see the instructions listed above under the section titled How to Find Out Where a Probate Estate Has Been Filed.)
- Enter the decedent's first name and last name as indicated and then click on "Search."
- Once you locate your probate case, click on the case number. You will then see the complete probate docket by date along with the name of the personal representative, the name of the attorney representing the personal representative, and the name of the judge presiding over the estate.
Once you locate the documents you want to have copied, you can go to the applicable county's Probate and Family Court website to obtain all of that court's contact information: Massachusetts Probate Court Contact Information by County. You can then visit the clerk's office in person or give the probate department a call to determine their procedure for obtaining the copies and the costs involved.
NOTE: If you follow the instructions above but nothing happens, either the website is being updated, in which case try back at another time, or your internet browser does not like the About.com interface at the top of the page, in which case once you land on the main search page, at the top of the page click on the words "Turn off this Top Frame" and then follow the remaining instructions.