Can an Executor Read a Will Before a Person Dies?

By Brenna Davis

In books and in movies, the contents of wills often come as a shock to the family. But in real life, wills are often heavily discussed prior to the will maker's -- also known as the "testator"-- death. Executors are neither legally entitled to read the will nor legally prohibited from doing so, and whether or not an executor reads a will is likely to depend on the executor's relationship with the testator.

In books and in movies, the contents of wills often come as a shock to the family. But in real life, wills are often heavily discussed prior to the will maker's -- also known as the "testator"-- death. Executors are neither legally entitled to read the will nor legally prohibited from doing so, and whether or not an executor reads a will is likely to depend on the executor's relationship with the testator.

Role of Executor

Executors have many roles: they must notify insurance companies and financial institutions of the testator's death, locate safety deposit boxes, pay off debts and ensure that beneficiaries receive what is left to them in the will. Some wills allow executors to make judgment calls about who gets what, and other wills are very specific. Family members with business or legal backgrounds may be appointed as executors while some people choose to use lawyers or professional will executors.

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Reading the Will

Particularly when there is a large estate involved, there may be a formal will reading scheduled with an attorney shortly after the death of the testator. However, any person may read the will before the death of the testator if the testator allows them to. The executor has no right to read the will prior to the death of the testator, but because many executors are family members, the testator may discuss the will with or read the will to the executor. Often, discussing a will with family members prior to death can decrease friction.

Sealed Wills

Wills do not become public records until after the will is filed with the probate court. Thus, executors have no right to read a will before the testator's death. Some people opt to write sealed wills, and give only one sealed copy to a lawyer, accountant or other person for safekeeping. They may even add a provision to the will dictating that no one must read it or else the will becomes void. These provisions, however, can be difficult to enforce and can lead to a messy fight over the will.

Potential Problems

When a family discusses a will together, it can be helpful to have the executor there. If, however, the executor is the only person who sees the will prior to the death of the testator, or the executor benefits substantially from the will, family members may attempt to fight the will. Executors should ensure they do nothing that creates the appearance they are unduly influencing the testator, and executors who stand to benefit from the will may want to suggest that someone else be named as executor.

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How to Serve as the Executor to a Will

References

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Montana Law Governing Last Wills & Testaments

Montana's Uniform Probate Code governs wills throughout the state. Like other states, Montana mandates specific formalities that must be adhered to during the making of a will. Formalities are important procedures that give wills legal effect; without them, a will maker — called a "testator" — could make a will that is contrary to his actual intent.

Getting a Copy of a Last Will and Testament in Tennessee

In Tennessee, a will executed by a testator (the person making the will) is typically available only after the testator passes. The will is made publicly available when it is read in open court, if the testator deposited the will with the clerk of the probate court. Eventually, every will probated in a county probate court in Tennessee becomes publicly available and then anyone can obtain a copy of the document.

Are Wills Made Public?

Before they reach the probate court, wills are private documents that present the final wishes of deceased individuals regarding distribution of their assets. On submission to probate, however, the courts take wills and make them a matter of public record in the interests of justice.

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