How to Find Out if your Relative had a Will, and If You’re in it

how to find out if you were included in your relatives willHave you ever thought you might have been named in a will but were not even made aware that your relative had died? Or, have you wondered if a loved one even had a will?

There is a way you can discover if a will existed, view a will that has been probated or find information about someone’s death. Sometimes you may just need to do some simple research online. Other times a more involved approach may be required.

How to find out if someone has died

Death records

Many experts suggest you begin your search by trying to locate the person’s death record or death certificate which is usually filed in the local county courthouse in the state and county where a decedent lived. It may also be filed in the state where he or she is buried. It is likely the most recent record available. Since 1950 social security numbers are recorded on most death certificates, you can also obtain that important piece of information readily.

Death certificates usually contain the person’s age, exact time of death, date of birth, place of birth, name of surviving spouse, race, length of residence in the county or state where the person died, cause of death, hospital, funeral home and burial information and the name and sometimes the address of the person supplying the information on the certificate, known as the informant.

These records may also contain details about the length of an illness, identification of any witnesses to the death, disposition of cremated remains, marital status at the time of death, maiden name, decedent’s occupation and name of employer, last residence of the deceased person, and religious affiliation.

Keep in mind that death certificates are only as accurate as the informant who supplies all of the information on it except the date, time, and place of death.

Social security death index (SSDI)

This is probably the most reliable way to find out if someone has died if they were a person who collected social security or a social security death benefit. The records go back to 1935, but the majority of available records are from people who were issued social security cards or received social security death benefits after 1962.

Although it could be helpful, you do not have to have the deceased’s social security number to search this index. If you have their name, you can search the index. You may be asked to provide the state of residence at the time of death. Keep in mind that you would enter a married woman in the index under her married name.

For a free social security index search, go to FamilySearch.org. or Google “Social Security Death Index Government.” Be certain you are not on a site that will require you to pay to get the information. These sites may say “free trial” or “Ad.”

Obituary searches

A person’s published death notice, generally appearing in a local newspaper, is considered a reliable source. You should start with the known town of residence of the deceased, or if you know where the person was born, the obituary may have been posted there. Online obituaries usually only go back a few years so you may have to ask someone where to locate the city or town’s archives to further use this avenue of research.

People search websites

Abstracts of indexed state death records are available at FamilySearch.org, census data websites and other searchable websites such as deathindexes.com, legacy.com and worldvitalrecords.com. There are a number of free resources, so there is no reason to pay for this information, however, you should be aware these sites could be outdated or inaccurate. To search a cemetery, try these websites: findagrave.com or billiongraves.com.

Obtaining probate records

What is contained in a will is nobody’s business but the author’s while that person (known as a “testator”) is alive. Even those who agree to be witnesses to a will are not entitled to read its contents and have no legal right to access. However, after a will is probated (filed in a probate court), it becomes a matter of public record and anyone can see its contents and related probate documents that have been recorded.

Both active probate files and archived wills remain part of the public record even after probate is completed. Most jurisdictions transfer the contents of closed files to microfilm. Computer indexing is used to access them.

The word, “probate” is derived from the Latin meaning “to prove.” Probate records can be used to prove relationships and prove the authenticity of a last will and testament. The word is used to describe the probate process, to describe the court in which it takes place and to describe the distribution of assets.

All wills in the United States pass through probate to become effective. If there is no will, the state divides decedent property and assets according to state law and the decedent is referred to as “intestate.”

The executor of the will (the person charged with administering its contents who is often clearly identified in the will) must authenticate the testator’s signature to the probate court and verify that the decedent intended the document to be his or her will. Soon after death the executor files a “petition for probate” attaching the death certificate and the will. The probate court reviews the petition and determines whether it is in the appropriate court—usually the court in the last county where the deceased resided.

Where to view a probated will

Once you locate the county where a probate document is likely to be filed, go to the court clerk’s office. Identify the file either by probate file number (docket number) if you have it or provide the name and date of death of the deceased. It is important to ask the court for the complete probate file as there may be other documents you could be interested in viewing.

Relatively recent probate files should be in the courthouse. Courts may move older files to archives (probate record books) or they may be available on microfilm, also referred to as “microfiche.” If you don’t know how to use microfilm to search for records, ask someone in the clerk’s office for help. Sometimes you will have to order archived files and review them at a later date. You can generally obtain copies of probate documents for a small fee.

How to Locate Probate Records Online

Another option, once you have located the county where the probate estate was administered, is to try doing research online. The probate court may be called by another name such as “surrogate’s court” or “circuit court,” so be aware of this if your initial research efforts come up dry. Call the county’s offices and ask if you are using the correct name for the court or check the county’s website.

Here are some suggested county searches for trying to locate probate records online:

  • “_________________ (insert name of deceased) County probate records”
  • “_________________ (insert name of deceased) County probate court”
  • “_________________ (insert name of deceased) County probate dockets”
  • “_________________ (insert name of deceased) County court records”

How to Request Copies of Records by Mail

If it is inconvenient for you to go to the probate clerk’s office and ask to see a will or other probate document, you could make a written request to that office by fax or mail. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope if you have some idea of postage needed, and if you are not concerned about disclosing your identity. Once the court has received your request, it should acknowledge it and give you an estimate of when you should expect a response.

You should also be informed of the estimated cost of any copies, if there are documents that are exempt from disclosure, and if there is a reason for delay in obtaining the records such as volume requested or the location where the records are stored. The court also reserves the right to deny requests that are overbroad or ambiguous.

By Ohio law you are not required to disclose your identity in a public records request or to disclose the reason for your inquiry.

Other Things to Consider When Looking for Probate Records

Other tactics you might consider if your search is unsuccessful:

  • Look under the names of relatives of the deceased (if known to you). You may find files full of relevant documents.
  • Look in the probate courts in other counties and possibly in states where the deceased may have claimed residence. This is sometimes done for tax purposes.
  • Contact the person listed as executor of the estate you are researching and tell them what information you need. You can also contact the attorney for that estate but neither party is obligated to assist you.
  • You might also consider hiring your own estate planning or probate attorney or a person who is in the business of doing file searches at the courthouse. Of course this will involve expense but it may be offset by travel expenses you would incur in looking for records.
  • Let the county probate clerk know you are having difficulty locating records and ask someone in that office to assist you.

Documents that may be in probate files

You may find a single document in a probate file. At the very least you should be able to find out what documents have been filed, who has been named executor or administrator of the estate, which attorney the executor has hired and the name of the judge presiding over the case.

If the file represents proceedings to settle the estate of the deceased, it may contain:

  • a will, if one existed
  • codicils (amendments to the will)
  • a petition for an executor or administrator
  • probate of the will
  • a list of creditors, heirs or beneficiaries
  • an inventory of the deceased’s estate at the time of death
  • an inventory or the deceased’s real estate and financial holdings
  • list of bonds held in joint tenancy (although not part of probate proceedings)
  • receipts from heirs and beneficiaries
  • a closing statement by the court

Can a Probated Will Ever Be Reopened?

Yes. It is a rare situation but the probate of a will can be reviewed if there is discovery of additional assets and the amount of the assets, their type or the form of ownership necessitates such an action. The appearance of a new will or a new creditor may present two other situations where it is possible for probate files to be reopened.

Who Can Help?

If you still have many unresolved questions after your search is done, you may want to consult with one of the probate attorneys at Slater & Zurz LLP law firm. These attorneys have tallied years of experience representing people like you and will able to advise you if you should continue your quest for information with their professional help. The consultation is free with no obligation to hire anyone as your attorney.

The law firm has convenient offices in Akron, Canton, Cleveland and Columbus and an attorney can arrange to meet with you at other locations within the state. Call 1-888-467-5105 for more information or contact the firm via its general website where you can message them or chat with one of the firm’s 24-hour operators. You can also visit the firm’s probate website at probatelawyerohio.com.

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