The Reading of a Last Will & Testament

By Beverly Bird

The reading of a will is a question of etiquette more than law. As of 2010, no states legally require that a will must be read to family members or beneficiaries. In most cases, a family member finds the will after the decedent’s death and knows immediately upon opening it what it contains and who its beneficiaries are. The laws in most states are set up to prevent a beneficiary or heir from “hiding” a will or keeping it secret from other family members.

The Effect of Probate

There is no confidentiality or privacy with a will, one of the reasons some estate planners favor revocable living trusts instead. Trusts do not have to be probated. With very few exceptions, wills do -- and once they are accepted by the court for probate, they are public knowledge. Any interested party can go to the court and request or view a copy. Beyond that, the probate laws in most states require that when a will enters probate, notice must be sent to all its beneficiaries and heirs, those who are closely related to the testator and would have inherited by rights of succession if he had died without a will. A reading of the will is not necessary for any interested party to find out what it contains.

Related Laws

Even when a will is not submitted for probate, some states have laws that require them to be placed with the court for safekeeping until probate is opened. In Florida, for instance, a will must be delivered to the court within 10 days of the testator’s death. Even if probate is not opened afterward, anyone can still pay a fee and get a copy of it.

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Suggested Etiquette

Although the reading of a will is not legally required, it may potentially avoid hard feelings among beneficiaries later, and it can set the emotional tone for the probate process. Although an executor has no legal standing or authority until a will has entered probate, she can gather family members and beneficiaries to hear the contents of it and show the respect of giving them copies. She can then take possession of the original will to file it for probate.

Practical Considerations

A gathering of next of kin to review the testator’s will also has practical considerations. Some family members might have knowledge of the deceased’s financial affairs that others do not. One of the jobs of an executor is to identify, gather and safeguard all the testator’s assets. Depending on the executor’s relationship with the deceased, he might or might not know the extent of those assets or where corresponding documentation can be located. Family members can assist with this information.

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What if an Executor of an Estate Destroys the Decedent's Last Will & Testament?

References

Related articles

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.

How to Find Out If You Are a Beneficiary in a Final Will When a Relative Dies

During a person's lifetime, her will is private; she determines who views the document. After she dies, the will becomes public. The executor files the document with the probate court and notifies all beneficiaries. At that point, anyone may inspect the will. To determine whether you are a beneficiary in a family member's will, review the will at the courthouse or contact the executor.

Verifying Authenticity of a Last Will & Testament

The maker of a will, commonly known as the "testator," must draft the will in accordance with the state's probate code for it to be held as valid. Generally, these formalities exist so that a probate court can verify the authenticity of the will. When a will is admitted to probate court, the court examines the will to make sure it was made in compliance with state law.

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