Films and literature often depict the “reading of the Will” as family and friends meet after the funeral to hear a lawyer read the terms of the deceased’s Will, to find out who will benefit from the valuable estate (and sometimes who does not benefit). This is usually shown taking place in an ornate drawing room at the deceased’s home or boardroom at the lawyers’ office.
The “reading of the Will” whilst perhaps a common occurrence in fiction is in reality actually something of a myth. So, what really happens? Let’s look at confidentiality…
Before the death of the testator
A Will is a private document which means that, while the testator is still alive, usually nobody other than the testator is entitled to receive a copy of the Will and lawyers are under a duty to keep it confidential.
However, a testator will often tell their executors or family members that they have made a Will and where it is stored. Family members may already have an idea of what the Will says if the testator has been open about its contents.
After the death of the testator
When a grant of probate has been issued, a Will becomes a public document, and anybody can apply to have a copy using a simple search on the gov.uk website for the modest sum of £1.50. No need to travel to the ornate drawing room or lawyers’ boardroom and no need to see the reactions from the individuals disinherited. Of course, this is far less dramatic and wouldn’t make for such entertaining viewing or reading!
In the time between the date of death and the grant of probate, before the Will becomes a document on public record, the confidentiality rights belong to the executor, the person(s) named in the Will who is responsible for dealing with the deceased’s estate.
Whilst the executor(s) could theoretically keep the Will confidential they can, and often do let relevant individuals know they have been left a gift in the Will and that more details will be shared after the grant of probate is obtained. Beneficiaries, particularly residuary beneficiaries (who have been left a share of what’s left in the estate after all debts and expenses have been settled and specific gifts paid), will often be sent a copy of the Will by either the executors or solicitors dealing with the estate on their behalf. Beneficiaries who are entitled to a specific item or sum of money are not strictly entitled to receive a copy of the Will.
Challenging a Will
Should a person wish to challenge a Will it is not necessary to leap to their feet at a “reading of the Will” and declare the challenge. Real-life is rather more mundane than fiction.
Often the potential challenge is identified at an early stage before a grant of probate has been issued and the person considering a challenge has not seen the Will. The challenger will invariably seek a copy of the Will and it is the executor(s) that have the final say on whether they can get a copy.
After a grant is made and the Will becomes a public document, a Will can still be challenged and a grant revoked so there is little benefit in refusing to allow a potential challenger to see a copy of the Will. Full disclosure can help alleviate concerns, for instance if it is seen that the Will was correctly signed and witnessed by two independent witnesses. This could avoid unnecessary hostilities and associated litigation costs.
The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.