Filing a will, assuming it exists, is one of the first steps people take after someone passes away, and many jurisdictions and states have deadlines for submitting it.
In general, you have between 10-90 days to file a will after someone passes away OR the will comes into your possession*. This is a legal requirement, so you cannot ignore this responsibility.
Fortunately, filing a will is simple.
Here’s how to do it:
Step 1: Find the Will
It’s obvious, but the first step to filing a will is finding the will. Don’t assume because it wasn’t with their sensitive documents and you never heard about it that a will doesn’t exist. You should conduct a thorough search before officially determining that the person passed intestate, or without a will.
After asking friends, family, and lawyers (if they had them), look in their personal safe, safe deposit box, house, the local clerk of court, any online services.
You should also:
- Make sure you are working with the latest version of the will. The version created nearest to death is the correct one.
- Double check it is the original and not a copy. The probate courts will refuse to work with a copied version.
- Look around for any codicils, or separate documents that amend certain terms of the original will.
Step 2: Find the Correct Probate Court
Once you have the will in hand, you’ll need to find the appropriate probate court to contact. This is the probate court where the person was domiciled, or permanently resided. If they lived there, voted there, worked there, and demonstrated all signs of being a resident, then that is considered their legal domicile.
Assuming you have that town or county, you just need to look up the probate court that oversees that jurisdiction.
You can do that by searching online or using this probate court directory.
Step 3: Submit the Will
It depends on the county, but you can usually drop it off to the probate clerk or register of wills at the probate court. They may also have a mail-in option, although that can slow down the process. If you are out of state, just call the probate court and ask them what the best way to submit a will is.
Step 4: Pay Any Filing Fees
Not all courts have filing fees, but if the one you’re working with does, make sure you pay those immediately. Filing fees for wills tend to be lower, say $10-$20*, but probate fees can be much higher ($500+).
Step 5: Prepare for Probate
After a will is filed correctly, the next step is for the executor named in the will to petition for probate and formally begin the process. Probate is the state-monitored dissolving of someone’s financial life. This is when someone, usually a family member or spouse, makes sure all taxes and debts are paid, sells estate assets as necessary, transfers ownership as needed, and ultimately distributes all inheritances to the correct people.
Check out everything you’re responsible for during probate + a useful timeline here: What is Probate?
The Bottom Line on Filing a Will
Filing a will is the first step of many after someone passes away, and it is a legal requirement. Most states mandate that a will be filed within 10-90 days of coming into possession of it. Fortunately, filing a will is as simple as giving it to the correct probate court and sometimes paying a small fee. We recommend filing it sooner rather than later to avoid any bureaucratic hiccups.