Tips for finding the will

  • Anyone can look for the will. If it is hard to find, get the whole family involved.

  • While you search the obvious places, also look out for keys and lawyers' names.

  • If you find a will from a while ago, keep looking to make sure there isn't a newer one.

  • Once you find it, do not alter it in any way, and keep it somewhere secure.

At some point, likely soon after your loved one’s funeral, you or someone in the family will have to find their will, if they had one. It is often a necessary first step in dealing with the estate, and usually a relatively simple one. But be prepared to do a lot of digging and to deal with some potentially challenging emotions as you do so.

Some people find dealing with the will to be cold and pragmatic—an unwelcome contrast to the funeral, with its heartfelt recollection of your loved one’s life, surrounded by family and friends. Of course it can be jarring to shift from talking about love and grief to talking about lawyers and property.

If you find it difficult to start the process, it may be helpful to keep in mind that the will is just that: an expression of your loved one’s will. It’s the vehicle through which they have communicated their wishes and desires for their property, and finding and executing the will is another way of connecting with them and honoring them.

Who should look for the will?

In general, the person named executor of the estate should be the one to take custody of the physical document and file it with the courts. However, you will not necessarily know who has been appointed executor until you find the will and read it. Therefore any close family member who wants to take on the responsibility can spearhead the search for the latest will. If it turns out to be difficult to locate, make sure to involve all members of the family; even if your loved one didn’t tell any of them where it was, they may know of hiding places the person had or be able to come up with somewhere to look that you haven’t thought of.

If you conduct the search for the will and then find that you are not named executor, you may feel a bit disappointed. But take heart: Being an executor can be quite challenging and time-consuming. You have faithfully and diligently played an important role in honoring your loved one’s wishes, and now your part is over.

Where should I look?

Start with the most obvious places in the person’s home: file cabinets, desk drawers, boxes of papers, safes. It will look like a normal printed-out piece of paper that says “Last Will and Testament” or “Will of…” at the top. Many people keep theirs in an envelope a folder marked Will, stapled to a piece of stiff colorful paper. If you don’t find it at home, check similar places in their office. 

You may find it useful to pause periodically to take stock of yourself during the search. Going through their records may unearth unexpected finds or reveal sudden feelings. Make sure you take the search at your own pace; finding the will is important, but you still have time to breathe. A frantic, headlong ripping apart of your loved one’s home is neither necessary nor wise.

Any close family member who wants to take on the responsibility can spearhead the search for the latest will.

As you search for the document itself, look out for two other things: keys and lawyers’ names. A key may open a file drawer, a strongbox, or a bank safe-deposit box with the will in it, so make sure you keep and catalog all keys. If you find a safe-deposit box key, contact the bank and arrange to look inside the box. People often (quite mistakenly) think it is a good idea to keep their will in a safe-deposit box, so it is a good place to look. If you have the key, some banks will allow you supervised access to the contents, though the rules will vary by state and by bank. You will likely be asked to provide the death certificate and proof of your relationship, and you will only be allowed to inventory the contents and to photocopy any documents, not to take possession of anything in the box until probate begins.

If you know the name of a lawyer your loved one dealt with, it is a good idea to contact them. Even if the person used a different lawyer for things like wills, this lawyer may know who that was or how to find them. If you aren’t familiar with your loved one’s lawyer, make note of any lawyers’ business cards or letterhead you find in your search. It may also be useful to check the person’s online calendar for appointments with lawyers, and their checking account records for payments to lawyers.

Also look for a copy of the will on their computer. This isn’t a legal will, but it may provide some clues to where the actual will is. And if the will is never found, it may be useful as evidence of the missing will.

Some states allow people to record the location of their will with the local secretary of state.

If the will is proving difficult to find, check whether the state they lived in has a will registry. Other options for missing wills include placing a notice in a local legal publication and asking the local probate court.

If you locate the will relatively quickly, take a look at the date. If it is more than a couple of years ago, it is wise to continue searching thoroughly. The most recent will is the only one that counts; each new one will generally start by saying it supersedes any previous will. Also make sure you look for any documents that aren’t wills but will have an impact on the estate. Some examples are living trusts, deeds of joint ownership, and beneficiary designations.

What if I can’t find the will?

First of all, don’t despair. It’s possible your loved one didn’t have a will at all—most Americans don’t, and that’s not a huge problem. It can be disappointing not to know the person’s final wishes, of course, but in a lot of ways it simplifies the process for everyone involved. When you are ready to deal with the estate, you’ll have to file for administration.

If you are certain that there is a will but you cannot locate it, you may still be able to prove that a valid one exists. Contact a lawyer in the state where the person lived, who will be able to take you through the process. Unsigned copies of the will, the witnesses who signed it, and others who can testify to the person’s intentions will all be helpful. 

What do I do once I find it?

Once you locate the will, it is important that make sure you do not alter it in any way. That means not even taking off a paper clip or removing staples. Leave every page exactly the way you found it, and secure it in a safe place. You may want to make some copies just in case.

As soon as you can, file the will with the probate court in the county where the person had their primary residence. (In some areas, this should be done at a register of wills office rather than a probate court.) Even if you believe the estate will not be going through the full probate process, it is still necessary to file the will with the court, and most states require you to do so within a certain amount time after you have located the will. 

Then take a deep breath. This bit is over. Probate won’t start right away. But if you’re the executor, there are quite a few steps you need to take before you get there, so remember to slow down and check in with yourself ●