Who Gets a Copy of the Will After a Death?

You may be given a copy if the will directly concerns you

People at a funeral in a cemetary
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If you have a death in your family, you might end up wondering when your loved one's last will and testament will be shared with you. But there's no requirement that a will be read aloud to a group or presented to the family in general. While procedures and laws vary from state to state, in general, the executor of the estate determines who will receive a copy. Some states may also have copies shared with those directly impacted by the provisions of the will.

Learn more about who gets a copy of the will after a death and how you may be able to access one on your own.

Key Takeaways

  • If you are executor or trustee for someone's estate, they may give you a copy of their will before their death.
  • Common places to find a will include a safe deposit box, home safe, with an estate attorney, or at a state's Register of Wills.
  • After a will has been admitted to probate, it becomes public record.
  • In most cases, only those directly impacted by a will are given a copy, such as beneficiaries, trustees, or heirs-at-law.

Where Can I Find a Loved One's Will?

If you are a named party in a loved one's will, they may have informed you ahead of time. As an executor or trustee, for example, you may have received a copy of the will or been told where it is being kept. Most people also keep a will in a safe place, such as:

  • A bank deposit box
  • A home safe
  • Personal files
  • With an estate planning attorney

The procedures for accessing a deceased loved one's safe deposit box at a bank differ by state. In Virginia, for example, you must have paperwork proving you are their next of kin and a certificate of their death, and you can only remove testamentary documents such as a will.

If you need to find a will, you can also check with the state Register of Wills or probate court to see if the will has already been filed. In Maryland, for example, a person can file a will for safekeeping for a one-time fee. It's then kept in a sealed envelope until it is released back to the person who filed it or to their representatives after their death.

After your loved one's death, their will is usually filed with the state probate court. A will filed with the probate court is a public record. You might not be able to see the entire will, but you can likely file a request to see which documents have been filed with the court.

If you are not the estate's executor, you may be able to find out who is from the death certificate. This is often filed with the county registrar.

Who Gets a Copy of the Will?

How a will is processed and administered depends on the state in which the deceased person lived. In most cases, a will is entered into probate after a person's death. If the person registered their will, the state will likely notify their heirs-at-law, as well as any executor named in the will. If there's no executor named in the will, the state may appoint one, or the heirs-at-law may be responsible.

The executor is usually the person who decides which people are given a copy of the will. In most cases, these will be people directly affected by its provisions. This can include:

  • The estate's executor
  • Trustees
  • Beneficiaries
  • Heirs-at-law or previous beneficiaries
  • Person with medical power of attorney
  • An accountant
  • Federal and state tax authorities

Executor

The executor is responsible for settling the estate according to the will. This includes paying taxes and any other expenses, selling any property that needs to be sold, making sure beneficiaries receive their inheritance, and funding assets into a trust if one exists. How this is supposed to happen is laid out in the terms of the will; the executor will need a copy in order to adhere to the wishes of the deceased person.

A will may also establish a fee or bequest to the executor as payment for the time they commit to managing and settling the estate.

Trustees

If the deceased person established a revocable living trust but didn't completely fund it, the trust will be funded after their death. Usually, any property that isn't in the trust is moved there, or the trust is named as the beneficiary on banking, investment, and other accounts. This is known as a pour-over will and allows the estate to avoid probate.

After this, the will names a trustee (or more than one trustee) to manage the trust on behalf of the trust's beneficiaries. In order to manage it properly, any trustees must receive a copy of the will.

In some cases, the trustee and executor may be the same person. They could also be two different people who must work together according to the terms of the will.

Beneficiaries

Any beneficiaries who are named in the will should receive a copy. This allows them to understand any bequests, as well as any trust that has been established for them. If any beneficiary is a minor child, the will should name a legal guardian. A guardian should then also receive a copy of the will so that they can protect the child's interests and follow the terms of any bequests.

Heirs-at Law or Prior Beneficiaries

It is possible that prior beneficiaries who have since been written out of the will, or heirs-at-law who have been disinherited, could contest the will. This would happen if they wanted to prove that the current will isn't valid and that they should have been included as beneficiaries.

However, many states impose time limits on when someone can contest a will. For example, California allows those with standing to contest a will for up to 120 days after it is filed with the probate court. An executor might send copies to anyone with standing to challenge the will in order to start the clock on this time limit and make a contested will less likely to occur.

Who is an heir-at-law varies by state. They are usually people who are so closely related to the deceased that they would have inherited if there hadn't been a will. This could include a spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, or siblings.

Medical Power of Attorney

In some states, the person legally allowed to claim a body for funeral services is whoever was granted medical power of attorney. For example, in Kansas, the holder of durable power of attorney for medical decisions is given priority over all others, including a spouse or children, if more than one person attempts to claim the body of a deceased person.

If the person with power of attorney is responsible for funeral arrangements, they will need a copy of the will so they know the wishes of the deceased.

Accountant

A will may appoint an accountant to handle debts and taxes, or the executor may choose to hire one. If that happens, the accountant will need a copy of the will to understand:

  • How assets have been distributed to beneficiaries
  • Any assets are funded into a trust
  • Any debts that exist
  • Taxes at the federal, state, and local levels

Federal and State Tax Authorities

Depending on the size of the estate, it may owe taxes at the state or federal level. If the estate is taxable, then a copy of the will must also be filed with the state taxation authority and the Internal Revenue Service.

In 2022, the federal estate tax exemption is $12.06 million; estates over that amount do not need to pay federal estate taxes. However, states that impose an estate tax usually have much lower exemption levels. In Vermont, for example, an estate must pay taxes if the value of the estate plus any taxable gifts made in the past two years is worth more than $4.25 million. Twelve states and the District of Columbia have an estate tax.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What happens when someone dies without a will?

Assets will go to the next of kin. Who is deemed next of kin can depend on the state where the deceased person lived and died, but in most cases, a spouse would be first in line, with children of the deceased person being first in line if there was no spouse. Deciding who is next in line depends on a state's laws of intestate succession.

Is a will without a lawyer legal?

A will can be legally recognized without having a lawyer involved. There are online will makers you can use, or you can write one yourself. You'll need to find out what the requirements are in your state for a will to be legal. At the very least, you'll need to write out your intentions, sign your will, and have two witnesses.

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