“Reading of the will” Myth or reality?

The information in this post is referring to Law in England and Wales and therefore is not applicable to the Inheritance procedures of other countries.

We’ve all seen the movies, a millionaire businessman passes away and his Will is read out, normally in an extravagant library on a stormy night, to a room of suspicious looking individuals all hoping for a cut, only to discover that he’s left his entire estate to a loyal employee causing uproar in the room. Just like the movies a reading of the will is fiction. There is no such thing as a “formal reading of the will” the actual circumstances are quite the opposite, most wills are read in private by only a few people. It is a common misconception that the family of the deceased must all be together and have the Will read to them by a solicitor. So if there is no “reading of the Will” a question that is often asked is who has the right to know the contents of the will and when do they find out?

One point I would like to make first is that no one should attempt to obtain and read the Will of a person who is still alive without their permission. This scenario comes up surprisingly often, mostly between children and parents where the child has the mistaken belief that as next of kin they have a right to see and influence their parents Wills. An example of this that I came across recently, was a child demanding to see their living mothers will after the death of their father who had left his estate entirely to his surviving wife, as they wanted to make sure that they would benefit from their fathers estate upon their mothers  death. Although wanting to know the contents of someone’s will can be for the best of intentions no one has the legal right to read another person’s will without their permission.

Another point I would like to make early on is that a person’s will does not come into effect until after their death. This means that a beneficiary is not entitled to take ownership of the assets that have been left to them in the will whilst the testator is still alive. Also a person named as a beneficiary of will does not have the right to decide what the testator does with their assets whilst they are alive; even if it is an asset that they would be due to inherit upon that person’s death. A common example of this is children not allowing for a parent or parents to sell the family home as they are due to inherit the property upon their parents death and if the asset was to be liquidated during the parents lifetime it could be used to pay for care costs, a better quality of life or other expenses, which would reduce the amount that the child would inherit.

It is only once a person has passed away that their Will comes into effect. An executor should be designated in their Will, in most cases the testator would have informed the executor of their role so that they are prepared when they need to act. It is the executor’s responsibility to locate the will and administer the estate. Hopefully the deceased would have informed their executor about the location of the Will, however this is not always the case. If the location of the Will is not already known you should check:

  • Their personal and professional paperwork at home
  • Their solicitors office (if they have one or the solicitors in the local area
  • Their bank
  • A will storage facility
  • The Principal Probate Registry in London.

If the person who locates the Will, upon its discovery, finds that they are not the executor, they should not take any actions that are considered to be that of the role of an executor or if they have already taking actions they should stop. The executor named in the Will should be located and informed, if they wish to act in their role and not renounce, the administration should be undertaken by them.

Once a Will has been located the first thing the executor should do is establish whether the Will is valid, if it is then they can start to act. If the Will is deemed invalid and there is not another Valid Will to replace it, then the Laws of intestacy should be followed.

Wills often include directions for the funeral so you should not delay reading the will until after the funeral like they do in the movies. If the executor is not the person who is arranging the funeral they should share these directions with the person arranging it but they do not have to provide the whole will to them.

Who has the right to read the Will?

The executor is the only person that must read the Will. It is up to the executor’s discretion as to who else gets to see the Will. Beneficiaries are not required by English Law to receive a copy of the Deceased’s Will or to be informed of the contents. If a person is not an executor or beneficiary they have no rights at all to see the will or be told of its contents and the executor has no obligation to provide this information, even if the person requesting is a family member.

Although not entitled to see a copy of the Will, a beneficiary has a right to know what their entitlement to the estate is. This means an executor must inform a beneficiary if they are a beneficiary. The executor does not have to provide the beneficiary with a copy of the will or even show them the will in order to inform them of their entitlement. A beneficiary is also not entitled to know who the other beneficiaries of the estate are or what they are receiving and the executor is not obliged to provide this information. It is up to the executor whether they choose to share the details of the Will.

A beneficiary does not have a legal right to see the will before probate has been granted. It is up to the executor’s discretion as to whether they share the exact details of the will. An executor if they so choose do not have to show anyone the will even after probate. However the original copy of the Will is submitted to the Probate registry when applying for a grant of probate, which once granted is made public record. Anyone can review a grant and its corresponding Will by using the Find a Will feature on the Government website and paying a fee of £10. This can only be done once probate has been issued.

It is important to note that the grant and Will that you can purchase from the probate office will not detail the estates accounts or include a letter of wishes if there was one. Other than the executor the only people entitled to see the estate accounts are the Residual beneficiaries of the estate.

An executor has a duty of care to the estate and its beneficiaries but this does not mean that they are obligated to show the beneficiaries the will or the estates account.

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