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Do you have a recently deceased relative and are wondering whether you are included in the will? Or perhaps you want to know whether you could receive a copy or otherwise view the contents of a will?
If so, this article is for you. Here, we go over the details of who is entitled to see a deceased individual’s will and how you could access the information it contains.
A last will and testament–often referred to simply as a ‘will’–is a legal document detailing how an individual’s estate or assets is distributed after their death. In this document, the “testator,” or the person who made the will, names the beneficiaries and details what each will receive from the property or assets left behind and how they will receive it.
The testator typically designates an executor, who will be responsible for overseeing the probate process and the distribution of the assets. If minors are among the beneficiaries, the document will designate guardians for the children in the event of the testator’s untimely death and his or her spouse.
The responsibility for determining who receives a copy of the will rests on the executor or the estate attorney. He or she will also be in charge of sending the will to the people entitled to receive a copy.
Naturally, all beneficiaries of the will are legally allowed to receive a copy. The executor or attorney may also send copies of the will to the minor children’s designated guardians.
If the testator has a revocable living trust, the state will usually name who is entitled to receive a copy of a “pour-over” will. This document covers property or assets left out of the trust, either by omission or error. The pour-over will typically include instructions for transferring or “pouring” the said assets into the trust upon the testator’s death.
If the executor and the trustee are the same people, the named beneficiaries may receive a copy of the will along with the executor/trustee. If the executor and trustee are two different people, only they–and not the beneficiaries–will be entitled to see the pour-over will.
In some cases, individuals have named beneficiaries in an initial will but omitted in a succeeding one. The executor or estate attorney overseeing the current will may choose to withhold the document from the disinherited heirs-at-law and send them a copy at a later date.
This strategy is often employed to shorten the time frame in which the current will could be contested. Because heirs-at-law are typically close relatives of the deceased, they are usually within their legal rights to claim part of the estate if there is no will left behind.
If would-be claimants find out that they are not included in the most recent will, they may move to have it declared invalid. By delaying access to the will’s details, executors leave less time for these claimants to explore their legal options.
Regardless of whether an individual is entitled to see the will when it is executed, they can see the document when admitted to probate. This is the process in which the court accepts the document and puts it into effect.
When the will is admitted to probate, it becomes a public court record. This means that anyone can go to the court where public records are kept and ask to see a copy. Alternately, anyone could request for a copy of the will to be sent to them by fax or mail for a small processing fee.
Of course, the executor of a will or its beneficiaries can request the probate judge to seal the will and related court documents. This effectively prevents the will and probate documents from being accessible to the public.
That being said, probate judges seldom allow sealing a will that has already been admitted to probate. Once the will becomes a public record, requests to seal it are rarely granted, whether the executor or the beneficiaries submit it.
There have been cases of judges allowing the sealing of a will and its related documents. Exceptions are usually made if the deceased is a celebrity, a prominent government or society figure, or is otherwise famous or notorious.
For more information on wills, please contact our probate law firm!