I am often contacted by potential clients who insist that their relatives executed a will, but they are unable to locate it. Wills turn up in the strangest of places. The recent case of Aretha Franklin’s will is a perfect example of this. It was found underneath a couch cushion. This raises the question: where is the best place to search for a missing will? My answer is: just about every place that you can think of where a scrap of paper could be located.
This issue is especially relevant in states like Virginia that recognize the validity of holographic wills (wills entirely in the handwriting of the person making the will, and that also contain a signature or mark indicating a signature). In Virginia, a person can write a holographic will on just about anything, including in a notebook, in a diary, in a journal, on a scrap of paper, on a napkin, etc.
Whenever I speak with a client who is trying to locate a will, I recommend that they search in the following places:
Places Inside The Relative’s House
The most logical place to start is to look inside the deceased relative’s house. I’d start looking in filing cabinets and desk drawers or anywhere that important papers would be located. Next, I’d check in various drawers located throughout the house such as nightstands, filing cabinets in the basement or attic, etc.
After you’ve searched all of the “logical” places, you may need to get more creative. Next, I’d start flipping through books to see if a will may be located between pages of a book (this is especially the case with any Bibles in the house).
As you search, focus on any diaries, journals, and notebooks. A holographic will can be as simple as a note written in a diary: “I leave everything to my brother. [Signature].” This means that you need to take the time to read through all of the diary/journal/notebook entries. I realize that this could take days on end depending on how many of those the relative maintained. One thing that I’ve come across in some of my cases is the fact that it can sometimes be painful for a family member to read diary or journal entries made by a deceased family member, especially when they describe experiences of abuse or trauma. If you’re dealing with that, you can always put them aside for a few days and then come back to the task, or you can ask a different family member or friend to read through them.
If you still haven’t located a will at this point, you’ll need to get creative and start looking in places that may seem illogical. Open all of the board games and see if there’s one in those boxes. Go through all the coat pockets. Look under the couch cushions (remember Aretha Franklin’s example). Look under the dishes. Look under the lining in the dresser drawers. Check under the towels in the closet. I know it seems silly. The odds that you’ll find a will there are in fact unlikely, but once you consider the amount of money that could be at stake, you’ll realize that it’s usually a worthwhile use of time even though the odds are slim of finding a will in those unconventional places.
Places Outside The Relative’s House
If you have not located a will in the relative’s house, move your search to outside of the house. Look in any “granny cottages” or garden houses. Look in the shed. Look in the barn. Look in the outdoor toolbox. If you have any reason at all to believe that your relative ever buried items in the yard, then consider performing some minor excavation. Keep in mind that a valuable Honus Wagner baseball card was found buried in a tobacco can in a yard in the 1990s.
If your relative had a storage unit, check in that. Don’t merely check the papers in the storage unit; rather, go through the actual boxes and flip through the pages of books. Also, check the vehicles and any boxes or items in those vehicles.
Also, contact the relative’s advisors such as their attorney, financial advisor, insurance agent, etc. The attorney could have a copy on file, or other advisors may have some leads on where it could be located. If you don’t know who their attorney is, feel free to place some calls to, or write letters to, estate planning attorneys in the area. In my experience, numerous estate planning attorneys will often respond to those types of inquiries.
Additionally, you should search your relative’s office at their place of work. I’ve found that a number of people keep a copy of their will at the office due to a concern about their house burning down (and their will being burned along with it). Other people keep copies of their will at their office so that their spouse or other relatives won’t be able to view it. Some people find themselves in situations where they wish to disinherit, or largely disinherit, a relative without the relative finding out. In such cases, they prefer to keep their will hidden from that relative by storing it at their office.
If You Still Can’t Find The Will
If you’ve searched in all of these places and can’t locate a will, I wouldn’t give up all hope just yet. Virginia law does not have a time deadline by which a will needs to be probated. So, if you find one a good bit later in time, you can still have it admitted to probate (though this does create numerous challenges relating to the status of assets that may have already been distributed). Once you get down to the task of cleaning out your relative’s house and property, it could still turn up.
What do you do if you’re virtually certain that your relative had a will but you still can’t locate it after an extensive search? In that case, you may need to consider the fact that it could have been destroyed. Maybe it was destroyed by the relative who made it or by another family member who found it before you (and who wasn’t treated favorably in the will). I have a working theory that I’ll never be able to prove, but experience and instinct tell me is true: there are quite a large number of wills that are first found by family members who are not provided for in them and who, in turn, destroy those wills and never tell anyone. I can’t prove this, but I think it definitely happens somewhat frequently based on the number of clients who swear to me that their relative had a will but they can’t locate it after an extensive search.
Let me sum up this blog post with the following observation: the thought of searching through your relative’s entire house, papers, possessions, etc., may seem like a daunting task given the time it would take, but given what could be a stake, it’s almost always worth the investment in time and energy. Good luck.