Fans of murder mysteries may assume that distributing a will is simple. There is one copy, which the decedent’s lawyer keeps on file, and after a death all heirs are brought in to hear the lawyer read the will aloud. As a matter of fact, this hasn’t been the common practice for centuries. The practice died out as literacy rates rose, but it’s a trope that has hung around in fiction because it makes for a dramatic scene.
What People May Do with a Copy of the Will
The reality is more practical. A will can be photocopied as many times as is necessary and sent to interested parties so that they can read it in their own time. This is how people can learn the provisions of the will even if they aren’t able to attend a reading. It also allows people to take a copy to their own lawyer if they need advice on how to contest its contents or just some help working their way through the legal language. So, who gets a copy of the will? And who is responsible for distributing it?
Generally, if the attorney handling the estate doesn’t have a copy of the will, he or she should be given one as soon as it is found. The attorney is responsible for copying the will and distributing it. The second person to get a copy will normally be the executor. This is the person responsible for locating the assets named in the will, taking the estate through probate and, as the title suggests, executing the instructions in the will.
The attorney will then send copies to all beneficiaries of the will or to their guardians if they are minors. The estate’s accountant will receive a copy, as will the probate court. If it is a large enough estate that it is subject to estate tax, then a copy will be mailed to the IRS.
Why You Need to Send the Will to Non-Beneficiaries
Murder mysteries don’t get very much right about the distribution of the will, but they are correct in one respect: People who were not named as beneficiaries but may have believed they were have to be included. A forward-thinking attorney will mail a copy of the will to any close relatives of the testator, even if they are not beneficiaries. If a previous draft of the will included someone who was later written out, that person will receive a copy of the current will at death. This is done so that they have notice to file a contest. They can do this if they believe that the will’s creator was mentally unstable, was unduly influenced by another party, was tricked into signing the will, or executed the will improperly. Contests must be filed within a certain period of time after probate – the exact time frame varies from state to state – so a disappointed relative should be notified promptly. If he or she is unable to file a claim, the situation can grow acrimonious.
Lastly, anyone who asks can have a copy in most circumstances — after someone dies, the will typically becomes a public document, although trusts generally remain private. If you don’t know the identity of the estate’s attorney, you can usually obtain a copy from the probate court after the case is closed. Asking is also the best way to get a copy of the will while the testator is alive.
Distributing copies of a will may be a bit more prosaic than gathering all your relatives into an attorney’s office to have them vie for your estate. It is, however, a great deal more practical. It’s the best way to make sure everyone has the information they need before the work of executing the estate begins. If you are an executor of an estate or a close family member of the deceased, be guided by professionals for the full process.