When Are Wills Made Public?

By Teo Spengler

A will is a legal document that enables you to organize your affairs after your death. When you write a will, you set out instructions about how you want your property divided and your estate handled when you are deceased. Private documents when written, wills become public when they are filed in the probate court.

Making a Will

A will does not go into effect until the person making it dies, so it makes sense that it is private. As your life changes, you may amend or rewrite your will to reflect those changes. Nobody has a right to look at your will during your lifetime; you can choose who to show it to. It is generally a good idea to give a copy to your attorney or executor.

Passing Into Probate

When you die, your will passes into probate court. Often your executor files the document in probate, but other interested persons can also open the probate action. During the probate process, the executor gathers your assets, pays your debts and locates your beneficiaries before dividing the estate according to your directions. Once the document is filed in probate court, it can be viewed by members of the public.

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Can an Executor Read a Will Before a Person Dies?


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Are Massachusetts Wills Public Record?

In Massachusetts, you can choose to file your will for safekeeping in your local county probate court. During your lifetime, you are the only person who can access the will from the court's files, but you can name a person to retrieve it upon your death. When you die, if no one claims your will from the court's files, the probate court opens it up to the public following publication of your death.

Who Enforces the Execution of a Will?

In drafting your will, you may appoint a person to serve as your executor, also known as a personal representative. This person will have the responsibility of carrying out your wishes pursuant to the will. Because the executor has a number of responsibilities and can be held personally responsible if they are not properly carried out, carefully consider appointing someone who is trustworthy and capable of carrying out the somewhat complicated probate process.

Can You Get a Copy of a Will Before Someone Dies?

A will is not actually permanent until its writer, called a testator, dies. Thus, while a testator can allow others to read his will, he can also keep it a secret. Even if he allows others to read a version of his will or files it with a local court, he can change it at any time prior to his death.

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