How to Know If You're Named in a Will
A "reading of the will" is a thing of the past
A last will and testament is a legal document that establishes what someone wants to happen to her estate when she dies. It identifies beneficiaries and states what each of them should receive of her property. It determines when and how each beneficiary receives their gifts.
It names an executor who will be in charge of guiding the estate through the probate process, and in the case of families, it will most likely name a guardian or guardians to raise a couple's minor children if they should die in a common event.
So how and when do all these individuals find out that they're named in the will? In many cases, they'll receive a copy of it.
The "Reading of the Will"
Movies, television, and books might depict scenes involving "the reading of the will," but this is purely a fictional scenario. It doesn't happen in real life, at least not in the current 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. But no state currently requires a "will reading".
Some estate attorneys will elect to gather everyone to receive a will copy if they think there might be some confusion or conflict over the will's terms.
Who Receives a Copy of the Will?
The estate attorney, if any, will determine who's entitled to receive a copy of the will and send it to these individuals. The most obvious people to receive a copy are the executor, the beneficiaries, and any guardians named in the will.
The estate's accountant, if any, will need a copy so she can understand what the will says about the payment of claims, and compensation for the executor and professionals enlisted to help with probate, such as herself and the attorney. Claims can be filed against the estate by creditors and taxes might be due, and the accountant will have to know about any provisions for payment.
When There's a Trust, Too
State law dictated 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, and it typically directs the executor to move or "pour" these assets into the trust at the time of death.
The rules for this situation can vary somewhat by state. In Florida, the executor/trustee and the beneficiaries named in the trust are 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 when the executor and trustee are different people.
What About Disinherited Heirs?
The estate attorney 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. He can opt to send a copy of the current will to these individuals to limit the timeframe in which a will contest can be filed.
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.
The beneficiaries of a will or the executor can ask the probate judge to seal the will and probate court records in certain circumstances. This is often done to prevent the public from reading the will and all other probate documents, but judges generally only grant this request in rare situations, such as when the deceased is famous.
Weinstein & Randisi. "How Does the Reading of a Will Really Take Place?" Accessed March 25, 2020.
Judicial Council of California. "Wills, Estates, and Probate," Select "Step 3: Figure Out Who the Heirs and Beneficiaries Are." Accessed March 25, 2020.
New York State Unified Court System. "Last Will and Testament." Accessed March 25, 2020.
Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara. "What Does the Personal Representative Do?" Accessed March 25, 2020.
Superior Court of California, County of Alameda. "If I Have a Living Trust, Do I Still Need a Will?" Accessed March 25, 2020.
Florida Senate. "2018 Florida Statutes - 733.212 Notice of Administration; Filing of Objections." Accessed March 25, 2020.
Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara. "When Can a Will Be Contested?" Accessed March 25, 2020.
Middlesex County New Jersey. "FAQ Surrogate - How Can I Get a Copy of a Will?" Accessed March 25, 2020.