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Probate records such as a last will and testament are available for public view in the state of California unless a court order renders them private. Although the federal Freedom of Information Act and the California Public Records Act do not apply to court documents, the California courts make all court documents accessible to the public if no state statute specifically makes them private.

Anyone with concerns about public access to their probate records should become familiar with the following details related to probate court.

Are Probate Records Public in California?

Privacy During the Individual’s Life

A person who creates a will to specify whom they wish to inherit their property and assets is known as a testator. This individual can revoke their will or amend it at any point during their lifetime, as it does not go into effect until their death. While it is not necessary to have an attorney prepare a will, it is always the best way to proceed. A knowledgeable legal professional can provide insight and ensure all documents are prepared and filed properly.

While the testator is alive, their will is considered private by the California court system since it is a personal document. Even those the testator chooses to witness the signing of the will are not given the legal right to view its contents, although the testator may allow them to do so.

The Executor and Probate Court

It is essential for anyone planning for the distribution of their assets to understand the basics of the probate process, which includes the following court actions:

  • Determining whether the individual had a valid will
  • Identifying the person’s heirs or beneficiaries
  • Determining the value of the property in the estate
  • Finalizing the individual’s financial responsibilities
  • Distributing the property to the beneficiaries or heirs

The individual a testator names to oversee the administration of their will is called an executor. They must file a California superior court petition in the county where the testator lived upon their death to begin the probate process. This petition contains information regarding the beneficiaries, the executor, and the testator and allows a probate clerk to open a file once a judge grants it. The probate clerk then assembles the file, which contains any documents related to the estate’s administration, such as the last will and testament and the initial petition for probate. This file is available for public view at the courthouse.

Documents That Are Not Public

Once the clerk compiles the probate file, there may be certain documents that are legally considered to be private. Some of these documents include information on criminal history, arrest reports, medical reports and records, grand jury proceedings prior to indictment, termination of parental rights, adoption proceedings, and records from juvenile court, among others. The public is not permitted to view or copy these records. If the individual’s will incorporates or includes documents that are confidential by way of statute, the California court will order at least part of the will to be sealed.

How Can Someone View Probate Records?

If an individual wishes to see a will in probate, they can go to the probate clerk’s office at the county court and request access to the file with just the testator’s name and date of death. They may then review the public documents for free at the courthouse or pay a small fee and ask for a copy. Details on accessing public probate records are as follows.

Any probate notes on hearings that occurred in recent years, as well as related documents on Trust and Estate cases, can be accessed using the court system’s public access site. This site allows anyone to see the specific documents that have been filed, but they may not read the documents on the site.

If an individual wishes to view the documents or gain access to cases not available through the public access site, they must go to the probate unit at the county courthouse during regular business hours. If the courthouse has the records on-site, the person may view them there; however, many older probate records are housed off-site. To view these documents, an individual must order them in advance and may have to wait three to five business days for the files to be delivered to the courthouse. Ordering off-site documents can be done by phone if the person has access to the case number they are inquiring about.

When a person wishes to view probate documents but does not know the case number, they can find it on the public access site. At this point, they may request copies in person at the courthouse or through the mail. To request documents by mail, the individual will need to provide the following items and information.

  • A self-addressed stamped envelope for the courts to mail the documents.
  • Their phone number, name, and address allow the court to contact the individual with any questions they may have and let them know where the documents should be sent.
  • A statement regarding whether the individual needs certified copies of any documents, as some government agencies may require this.
  • The case number and approximate year it was filed.
  • A check made out to the superior court, along with the individual’s driver’s license number and expiration date, phone number, name, and address.
  • The check’s memo line should say “not to exceed $30.00.” The court will fill in the amount on the check once they have filled the request. If the cost exceeds $30.00, the court will contact the person to obtain the necessary fee.

Keep in mind there are a number of fees that may be charged when a person requests copies of the documents, and the request by mail could take as long as six to eight weeks to be processed.

Trust a Skilled Legal Team with Your Last Wishes

Planning for the distribution of your assets after your death is a private matter, and many people fail to realize their probate records may become public once they have passed away. The experienced team at The Flanigan Law Group has earned the trust of their clients by handling these matters with respect and compassion while exercising the integrity to preserve client privacy in any way they can. If you are looking for a knowledgeable Orange County Probate legal team to handle your estate planning and counsel you on all available options, visit our website to see how we can help you.