Clients often ask us how to find the will of a deceased person. The situation happens that a loved one dies, and the family does not know where the will is.
First of all, a will is not required to file a probate proceeding with the probate court. You can file for probate without a will. However, a search for a will should be made and if one is found, then the original last will and testament must be deposited with the probate court and a copy of the will presented to be admitted to probate.
Sometimes, the nominated executor has the original will. But if he or she doesn’t have it, there are some common places to start looking.
Suggestion # 1: Look where the decedent kept his or her important paperwork
A great place to start is to look for a will where the decedent kept his or her important paperwork. It could be in a small safe or filing cabinet at the home.
Suggestion # 2: Contact close family members and/or friends
Contact the deceased person’s close family members and friends. Although they might not know where the will is located, they may be able to identify places that the deceased person kept important documents.
Suggestion # 3: Check the Safe Deposit Box
Important documents, such as a will, can also be kept in a safe deposit box. Contact the banks the deceased person did business with to confirm if he or she had a safe deposit box. Check around the deceased person’s home for a safe deposit box key. Keys vary in shape and color. A close relative can go to the bank to open the safe deposit box, if he or she has the key, to see if it contains a will or trust.
Suggestion # 4: Check with the Probate Court
Although there is no centralized “will bank,” California Probate Code Section 8200 requires the person that has the original will to lodge it with the local county probate court within 30 days of learning of the testator’s death. It may be helpful to reach out to the probate court where the decedent lived and of all counties where the deceased person owned real estate to inquire whether a will has been lodged.
Suggestion # 5: Contact the attorney who drafted the Will
A great place to start is the attorney who drafted the Will. Look through the deceased person’s financial records and documents if you’re unsure who the attorney was. The attorney may have a copy of the original will for safekeeping. However, the vast majority of estate planning attorneys do not keep the original will on file as California Probate Code Section 710 provides that attorneys must use “ordinary care for preservation of the document . . . and shall hold the document in a safe, vault, safe deposit box, or other secure place where it will be reasonably protected against loss or destruction.” Regardless, reaching out to the attorney who drafted the will is a good starting point.
Finally, don’t be discouraged if you cannot find a will. Most people die without ever having created a will. You can still file a probate action without a will, and the California laws of intestate succession will determine who is entitled to be an heir of the estate.