How to find my grandfather's will that was suppressed by my cousin?
July 30, 2019 2:41 PM   Subscribe

My maternal grandfather died in my PacNW state in the late 80s. He had moved from the midwest to live nearer to my family as he aged. After he died, my mother wanted a copy of his will. My cousin/mother's nephew, who had moved into my grandfather's midwestern house, refused to let her have a copy. According to my mom, he went so far as to hire a lawyer to have the will legally kept from her.

My mom made it clear to my grandfather that she didn't want to inherit the midwestern house or anything else of his. After he died, she wanted a copy of his will because, well, he was her father. She was his only living offspring (both of her siblings died young in separate tragic accidents and my grandmother died in earlier in the 80s) and wanted to know what his estate entailed. Neither of us understands my cousin having suppressed the will-- why would he do this unless there was something to hide? The midwestern house was sold by my cousin after our grandfather died and presumably he received any profit from it sale. It's worth noting that my mom does not want any money from my cousin, just a copy of her father's will.

I would like to find the will for my mom. There were no special circumstances that I know of that would have made it necessary for his will to be suppressed by my cousin (other than his generally being a shit, but we won't go there). I'm not well-versed in estate law and I am not sure where to start looking. Understandably, there has been little to no contact between my mom and my cousin since the late 80s when this all went down. I was a young teenager and my memory of it is somewhat hazy. As my mom ages, I want to help her find an answer to this 30-year old mystery.

Aren't wills public record? Should I be able to contact the state court where he died (and where I still live) to obtain a copy? Can my cousin legally do this?

Any light folks can shed on how I can go about starting this process would be greatly appreciated.
posted by hollisimo to Law & Government (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Find the probate court in the county he died; ask where they store their records from the '80s; ask there to see if they can find the probate records. You will probably have to pay for 'research' (aka someone to physically dig through long-neglected files).
posted by flibbertigibbet at 3:00 PM on July 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yes, in general wills are filed with the county probate court after death and are public records. Sometimes states also keep these records, but I would start at the county level where he died and/or where his house was located.

Is it possible that instead of a will, your grandfather went with a trust set up? In which case the trust documents are private except for those involved with the trust.
posted by muddgirl at 3:00 PM on July 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I agree that this would be in probate court probably and I would start with the state where your grandfather died--some states have separate probate courts, for others that's just a case type within their trial courts. I would also look in the courts where your cousin lived. I would search under names of all parties: the grandfather, the cousin and your mother. From the 1980s--it might be included in online databases.

In addition, some counties have Will Repository programs. Here is an example.

I'm a law librarian and happy to help more over memail, etc.
posted by purple_bird at 3:18 PM on July 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not every will is a public record. I know this firsthand after recently trying to locate a copy of a family member's will for a particular legal need. If the estate did not need to be put through probate, it may not be public. And nowadays many people set up a trust before their passing and or everything in the trust specifically to avoid probate. Source: legal assistant whose attorneys occasionally do estate planning.
posted by WCityMike at 4:31 PM on July 30, 2019

I wonder, because I’m the cynic here, if there even was a will. Because if there was a will, and it showed that the cousin inherited the house, there’s no reason he would have kept it from your mom. If the grandfather died without a will, however, depending on the state, at least half would have gone to your mom.

Is your cousins parent the first born or a male?

What I would think of is looking up the property records of the sale, who handled it and in whose name was it when it was sold? What did the title search on the house say?
posted by corb at 7:06 PM on July 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also: as an interested heir, I don’t think your cousin can legally keep the Will from her.
posted by corb at 7:07 PM on July 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: IAAL, IANAW&TL, IANYW&TL (Wills & Trusts Lawyer).

If there was no will, your grandfather's estate would have had to be distributed according to some state's intestacy laws. I expect it's complicated if you die in one state but have property in another. If there was a will, then your grandfather's estate would have passed according to its terms, which would have been dealt with by an executor or personal representative. This would likely have had at least minimal court involvement (and therefore a paper trail of some sort).

At any rate, I think the first thread you can find and follow up reasonably easily is the property records of the midwest house. The only way I can think that the cousin could have sold it without the question of your grandfather's will coming up is if he lived there for a sufficient number of years after your grandfather died, so that the cousin became the owner by adverse possession. The property records should show that.

Otherwise, perhaps the cousin forged a will giving himself the house and probated it in Michigan, or forged grandfather's signature on the sale documents.

Anyway, your first stop should be the county recorder where the house was, and you'll want copies of the last few documents recorded for that address (going back to when your grandfather's name first appears).
posted by spacewrench at 11:12 PM on July 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

I don’t think your cousin can legally keep the Will from her

I think you underestimate the efficacy of "Will? I don't know anything about a will!" (Altho I guess if he admitted there was one, but wouldn't let her have it, there's more of an actionable problem.)
posted by spacewrench at 11:14 PM on July 30, 2019

Best answer: 1. Consult with a lawyer in the midwestern state and in the county where he died.
2. If there was a probate estate in either location, with or without a will, there would be records of those proceedings. If there was a probate estate with a will, the will will be part of that record.
3. In many states, the will has to be filed with the probate court on the testator's death, even if it not expected that probate proceedings will be needed.
4. Many people ignore point 3.
5. Whether or not probate proceedings were done in the state he died in, some form of probate proceeding would have to be filed where the real estate was located if that mechanism was used. A probate court in Washington state, for example, could not do anything with real estate in Missouri.
6. If the home passed to the cousin outside of probate proceedings, the way that occurred would probably be clear from examination of the chain of title in that county. The will would not have been particularly relevant in that case.
7. Sometimes a relative simply moves into the home of the deceased relative, keeps paying the property taxes, and nothing is done for years to formalize ownership. But when he sold it, the buyer must have been satisfied that he had clear title.
posted by megatherium at 2:51 AM on July 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

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