How to Find a Missing Will

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A loved one has just died, and no one knows where the will is: It sounds like something out of a Gothic novel, but it happens all the time—and there’s nothing obsolete about the problem it poses. Odd as it may seem in this online age of scanned forms and e-signatures, the law still requires the original, physical piece of signed paper to settle an estate, make bequests and execute the deceased’s wishes. “A will is one of the few documents left for which there’s no real substitute,” says Neil H. Reig, an estate planning and elder law attorney in Westchester County, New York.

Places to Look for a Missing Will

The first place to search is obviously in the deceased’s home, especially in areas where the person tended to work or keep important papers: library, study, or any room with a desk or bureau. A home safe or lockbox is an obvious place – check those closet shelves or floors for one – and don’t forget bedside table drawers. Since a will is such a significant and one-of-a-kind document, it could be in a more unorthodox spot as well. “I’ve heard of people putting it in a little Ziploc bag and keeping in the freezer,” says Steve Giacobbe, CIO and managing partner of Accredited Wealth Management, a financial planning and money management advisor in Louisville, Kentucky.

The workplace is another common place, especially for small business owners, who often have safes for petty cash and other valuables. If the deceased was still employed, check the office, and any personal desk, file cabinet or locker he/she had there. Look into any storage units the person was renting.

Before you turn any of these premises completely upside down, though, contact the attorney you think drew up the will. Although it’s getting less common, some trust and estate lawyers do store wills for their clients, either in his or her office or in a bank safe; at the very least, they might have a copy, or instructions on where to look.

Getting a Missing Will from the Bank

Next stop: the deceased’s bank. Some financial institutions keep wills as a service to longstanding or favored clients. And of course, a safety deposit box is a traditional repository for wills. If someone is a joint or co-lessee with right of survivorship to the box, you should be able to access it easily; if it was singly held, you might have to get a court order to see it, and have the death certificate on hand, too. Depending on their policies, some banks will release a will to the named executor, while others will send it directly to the probate court.

Speaking of officialdom, check with your local probate court (called surrogate’s court in some states) or county clerk’s office. Many municipalities let residents file their document there, a process called “registering a will.” If the deceased had a second home, be sure to contact the appropriate agency in that area, as well as local banks. It’s unusual, but not out of the question, for someone to have a safety deposit box at one institution while keeping accounts at another.

When conducting your search, don’t limit yourself to the deceased’s paper files: “The computer is another place to look,” Reig advises. You might find a scanned copy of the will there, with directions on where to find the original. Nowadays, many people also keep an electronic Letter of Instruction (the type that begins “In the event of my death…”) to their survivors and heirs – detailing the location of relevant documents, among other things.

Whether searching manually or electronically, be on the lookout not just for the will, but for clues to its whereabouts: correspondence, letters of intent, bills or bank statements, invoices, lawyers’ or bankers’ business cards. Check every file or folder, no matter how it’s labeled or named. There might even be a mention in a casual email.

Don’t forget to ask relatives and close friends; sometimes people leave their wills with other family members (preferably younger ones) for safekeeping. Definitely contact any lawyer the deceased dealt with regularly; even if that person didn’t draft the will, he or she have recommended someone to do it – or be able to find out: “Attorneys often network with other attorneys,” as Giacobbe notes. Other financial professionals in the deceased’s life, like brokers, money managers or financial planners, might be able to put you on the right track as well. Your loved one might have also confided in a spiritual or religious advisor, a caregiver or a staff member at his or her assisted-living facility.

If your search turns up a photocopy of a will, unfortunately that won’t help much: Probate courts demand the real thing, with what’s known in legalese as the “wet signature” on it – no substitutions allowed, even if they’ve been duly signed and witnessed. To get a duplicate accepted, you’d have to convince the court in a special proceeding, which usually works only in very limited circumstances, says Jim Worthington of Worthington Law Firm, a trusts and estates practice in Louisville, KY. “It’s an old-fashioned world view, contrary to 21st-century experience, that an original document have some intrinsic significance,” he allows. Even among legal documents, “the importance of having the actual will is almost unique.” 

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