A last will and testament is a legal document that establishes how someone—referred to as the testator—wants their estate distributed when they die. A will identifies beneficiaries, and it states what each of them should receive of the deceased's property. It determines when and how each beneficiary receives their gifts, so it's only natural that you'd want to know if you're named in it.
A will also names an executor who will be in charge of guiding the estate through the probate process. It will most likely name a guardian or guardians to raise a couple's minor children if they have any and they should die in a common event.
Most individuals will learn that they're named in the will because they'll receive a copy of it.
The "Reading of the Will"
Movies, television, and books sometimes depict scenes involving "the reading of the will," but this is an outdated, fictional scenario. It doesn't happen in real life, at least not in this day and age.
Estate attorneys were in the habit of gathering the family in their offices to read the will out loud in days gone by because not all people were literate. They might not be able to read the will on their own. No state requires a "will reading."
Some estate attorneys will gather everyone to receive a copy of the will if they believe there might be some confusion or conflict over its terms.
There Might Not Be a Will
A 2020 survey by Caring.com indicates that the number of people who had a will in 2020 was 25% less than those who did in 2017. It's not a foregone conclusion that the deceased left one. They might have formed a different sort of estate plan, or perhaps they never planned their estate at all.
One way to avoid looking for and wondering about something that doesn't exist is to simply check with the probate court in the county of the decedent's residence. The will should be on record there if the individual who had it in their possession has had time to submit it to the court for probate. Check back a second or third time if you come up empty on your first contact.
Who Should Receive a Copy
The estate attorney will determine who's entitled to receive a copy of the will and send it to these individuals, assuming the estate has an attorney. Otherwise, the named executor will most likely do so. The most obvious people to receive copies are the beneficiaries and any guardians for minor children.
When There's a Trust, Too
State law usually dictates who receives a copy of a "pour over" will when the deceased also had a revocable living trust. This type of will effectively catches any assets or property that were left out of the trust by error or omission. It typically directs that the executor should move or "pour" these assets into the trust at the time of death.
The executor/trustee and the beneficiaries named in the trust might be required to receive a copy of the will if the executor and the trustee are the same individual. Only the executor and the trustee are required to see a copy in some states when these positions are held by different people.
What About Disinherited Heirs?
The estate attorney or executor might be aware that a disinherited heir-at-law or a beneficiary named in a prior will but omitted in this one might want to challenge the validity of the current will. They might send a copy of the current will to these individuals to limit the timeframe in which they can file a will contest. The clock typically begins ticking when these heirs are made aware of the contents of the will.
Heirs-at-law are so closely related to the decedent that they would have had a right to inherit if the decedent had not left a will, so they might seek to have the will throw out or declared invalid if they're not named in it.
Wills Are Public Record
A will becomes a public court record when it's admitted to probate, regardless of who's entitled to receive a copy under applicable state law. Anyone can go to the appropriate courthouse and ask to see the will or write a letter to the probate court to request a copy by mail or fax after paying a typically small fee.
When Wills Are "Sealed"
The beneficiaries of a will or the executor can ask the probate judge to "seal" a will and probate records in certain circumstances. This prevents the public from reading the will and all other related court documents.
Judges generally only grant a request to seal a will in rare situations, such as when the deceased is famous.
Some states allow testators to place their wills with the court or the Register of Wills for safekeeping prior to their deaths so they're easily located when the time comes. These wills aren't available to the public while the testator is still alive.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How long does it take for a will to go through probate?
During probate, the court determines whether the will is valid. The appointed executor is then responsible for identifying all the assets of the deceased, paying their debts, filing any taxes, and distributing the estate's assets to beneficiaries. Depending on the size and complexity of the estate, this can take weeks, or it can take years.
Can I read someone's will while they're still alive?
Before someone passes away, the only way you can see a copy of their will is if they show it to you themselves. You will not be able to see a will that is with a Register of Wills or the court system.