Who Gets a Copy of the Will After a Death?

You can often get a copy simply by checking public records

Lawyer reviewing will with widow
••• Rod Morata / Getty Images

Contrary to scenes you might have seen enacted on television or in the movies, there's really no such thing as a "reading of a will." There's no legal requirement that a last will and testament must be read aloud to anyone. The executor or personal representative of the estate determines who's entitled to receive a copy and who should be sent a copy even if state law doesn't require it.

Locating the Will

It doesn't always happen that family members can immediately locate a decedent's last will and testament, yet everything begins with this document.

Logical places to look include safe deposit boxes and anywhere the decedent was fond of filing away personal papers. The decedent's lawyer might have kept a copy if he drafted the document. If you don't know who that lawyer is, consider placing a notice in the local newspaper.

You can also check with the probate court. Some states allow individuals to file their own wills before their deaths for safekeeping.

Many states require that the individual in possession of the will must file it with the probate court when it's located. Ideally, the document will name the individual the decedent wanted to act as executor of her estate.

Once filed, the will is a matter of public record. Anyone can see it. Interested parties can also usually learn the name of the executor by getting a copy of the death certificate from the county registrar. They can then request a copy of the will if they haven't yet received one or if it's not yet available for viewing in the court system.

This leaves a somewhat long list of who should receive a copy.

The Executor Named in the Will

Obviously, the executor must have a copy of the will. He's responsible for settling the deceased's estate according to its terms. He must review it to understand who the beneficiaries are and to learn of any special restrictions or instructions that might exist about their shares of the estate.

Many wills also determine what powers should be granted to the executor, sometimes called a personal representative, when he's settling the estate. They might detail what type of compensation he's entitled to receive for carrying out all the fiduciary responsibilities involved in the probate process.

The Beneficiaries Named in the Will

All beneficiaries named in a will are entitled to receive a copy of it so they can understand what they'll be receiving from the estate and when they'll be receiving it. If any beneficiary is a minor, his natural or legal guardian should be given a copy of the will on his behalf.

Heirs at Law and/or Prior Beneficiaries

If the executor or the estate attorney anticipates that anyone will file a will contest to challenge the validity of the will, he might send copies to any heirs at law of the deceased who aren't named in the will. He might also want to provide copies to any beneficiaries named in a previous will if there is one.

Heirs at law are individuals who are so closely related to the decedent that they would have inherited from her if she had not left a will. All states have prescribed lists detailing who these people are. They commonly begin with a surviving spouse, if any, then children, grandchildren, and outward to more distant relatives in an ever-widening arc. More distant relatives typically do not inherit unless all those who precede them in line are also deceased.

Providing copies of the will to all these people can help to limit the amount of time that any disinherited beneficiaries or heirs have to challenge the will. In many states, it starts the clock ticking toward the deadline by which they must do so.

The Accountant for the Estate

The accountant for the estate must receive a copy of the will if one is appointed. He must understand any instructions the will gives for paying off the debts of the estate.

He must also deal with the apportionment of any estate and income taxes, instructions on the allocation between estate income and principal, and when and if estate accountings must be given to the beneficiaries and filed with the probate court. He must know what powers the executor has in settling and compromising creditor claims filed against the estate.

The Successor Trustee of a Revocable Living Trust

The last will and testament might be a "pour-over will." This type of will often comes into play when the deceased had a revocable living trust that was not completely funded prior to his death—not all his assets had been placed into the trust's ownership. This type of will simply directs that any property left outside the trust should be moved into the trust at his death.

A pour-over will also requires a probate proceeding, and the successor trustee—the individual named to manage the trust after the owner's death—must receive a copy of the will. It should explain how the executor and the successor trustee should work together to settle the trust and the probate estate

It sometimes happens, however, that successor trustee and the executor are the same person.

The IRS and the State Taxing Authority

If the estate is taxable for federal or state estate tax purposes, a copy of the will must also be submitted to the Internal Revenue Service and to the applicable state taxing authority. It should accompany the filings of any estate tax returns.

Wills Are Public Record

Remember that a will becomes a public record for anyone to see and read when it's filed for probate with the state court. The beneficiaries of the will can request that the probate judge seal the court records to prevent the general public from viewing it under certain circumstances.

But probate judges typically only grant this request only in rare situations, such as when the deceased is a celebrity or otherwise notorious.