The Rights of Beneficiaries to Wills

By Christine Funk, J.D.

The Rights of Beneficiaries to Wills

By Christine Funk, J.D.

When someone is a beneficiary of a will, it means they have been identified as someone who should inherit some assets from the person who wrote the will. This inheritance can include:

  • Money
  • Household items
  • Family heirlooms
  • Jewelry
  • Antiques
  • Real property, such as the family home
  • Any other item of value, either economic or sentimental

Woman reading a piece of paper next to a cup of water

Beneficiaries have certain rights, however, there are also legal limitations placed on beneficiaries. It is important to understand the scope of your rights as well as these limitations if you will inherit assets according to someone's will.

The Right to Be Informed of Beneficiary Status and to Know the Will's Terms

When a will is undergoing probate—the legal process of proving the will and distributing assets according to it, the person overseeing the estate during this process, called the executor, has the obligation of informing the named beneficiaries of their status. The beneficiaries themselves have the right to learn this information as well as what, precisely, has been left to them.

During probate, the will becomes a public document and a matter of court record. At that time, all beneficiaries, as well as the general public, may access the will to see the terms. However, the executor is under no obligation to personally provide this information to beneficiaries nor is the executor required to disclose the contents of the will to any beneficiary beyond their particular inheritance.

The Right to Receive the Inheritance Within a Reasonable Time

A beneficiary has the right to receive their inheritance within a reasonable time frame. While the laws of each state vary to some degree, each state ensures beneficiaries timely receipt of what is lawfully theirs. As a general rule, 12 months is considered a reasonable time frame.

Of course, every will is different, and there may be complicating factors that delay the distribution of assets to beneficiaries for months or even years. That said, if a beneficiary believes there has been an unreasonable delay, they can ask the probate court to require the executor to provide a reasonable explanation for the delay. If there is no reasonable explanation, the beneficiaries have the option of petitioning the court to appoint a new executor to take over the responsibilities that come with probating a will.

The Right to Know What Is Happening

Before a person's assets may be distributed to the beneficiaries, the executor must first pay any outstanding debts and file taxes on behalf of the deceased. In some cases, this may result in a modification of the terms of the will. In any situation, including the three described below, the beneficiary has a right to know what is going on with their inheritance.

Imagine, for example, a person passes away owing $60,000. They have $20,000 in cash, and a home worth $40,000. In this scenario, there would be nothing left after the debts have been paid and the beneficiary receives nothing.

Imagine instead the beneficiary has been left the family home worth $100,000 and all of the household goods, which is the extent of the estate. If the deceased is $60,000 in debt, the executor may have no choice but to sell the home to pay the debt. Then, the balance of the money would go to the named beneficiary.

Imagine a third scenario where three people are listed as beneficiaries, however, the property they were due to inherit—some jewelry, art, and a small lake home—must be sold to pay debts. Any remaining funds would be distributed to the beneficiaries in proportion to the value of the assets sold.

A will is a great way to make your wishes both known and legally carried out when the time comes. Consulting an attorney familiar with creating wills or an online service provider is generally beneficial during this process. Whether you choose to work with a service provider or consult an estate planning attorney, creating a legally binding will provides peace of mind for you and your loved ones.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.