When a loved one passes away, getting a glimpse at the will is not the first thing on most people's minds. In the weeks following the death, however, when the funeral is over and it's time to address the business of the decedent's estate, it's natural for likely heirs to want to see the will. So, how do you get a copy?
Contrary to images from the movies, the will is not produced with a flourish in a paneled attorney's office and read aloud to the family gathered there. Instead, it is (much less glamorously) filed with the Probate Court for the county in which the decedent resided. Heirs named in the will may receive a copy of the will from the personal representative of the estate, but they need not wait for that. Because documents filed with the court are a matter of public record, heirs (and anyone else) can go down to the courthouse and request a copy themselves.
If you want a copy of someone's will before they pass away, your only option is to ask the person who made the will. He may not want to reveal the will, and he can't be compelled to; until a person dies, it's his prerogative to keep his estate plan private if he wishes.
A good question to ask yourself is, "Why do I need a copy of the will?" If you're an heir, and want to know what you can expect to inherit, that's reasonable. But recognize that when you read the will, you may see things you wish you hadn't—for instance, that a sibling or cousin received a larger inheritance than you did.
One of the many reasons people create trusts is for privacy. Trusts do not need to be filed with the Probate Court, because the assets in a trust do not go through probate. When the creator of the trust dies, assets are distributed directly to beneficiaries or held and managed per the terms of the trust.
With living trusts, when the creator dies, the beneficiaries of the trust are entitled to a copy of the trust. However, no one else is.
With revocable trusts, commonly called “living trusts,” the creator of the trust is also the trustee. When the trustee dies, the trust becomes irrevocable—unchangeable. At that point, the beneficiaries of the trust are entitled to a copy of the trust. However, no one else is. The trust beneficiaries may have other rights as well.
When making an estate plan, people have the right, with very few exceptions, to leave their assets to whomever they please, in whatever proportions they choose. If you understand this and respect this, you'll be better equipped to read and respond to the estate planning documents of your loved ones.
If you are making an estate plan for yourself, you may wish to consider the impact on your heirs' relationships with each other if you leave them unequal bequests. We invite you to contact us to schedule a free initial consultation, so that we can help you make an estate plan that meets both your needs and those of your family.
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