When someone dies, you've probably watched in the movies or on TV or read in a book about "the reading of the Will." Unfortunately, this is purely a theatrical device designed to create drama and tension within a fictional story. Today there is no legal requirement that a Last Will and Testament be read out loud to anyone. Instead, the estate attorney has to determine who is entitled to receive a copy of the Will and who should be sent a copy even if state law does not require it. So who should get a copy of the Will?
Personal Representative Named in the Will
Probably the most important interested party who must receive a copy of the Will is the person or entity named to serve as the Testator's Personal Representative, also called the Executor or Executrix. Why? Because the Personal Representative is solely responsible for settling the Testator's estate and therefore needs to review the Will to understand who the beneficiaries of the Will are and any special restrictions or instructions about their shares of the estate; all of the powers that the Personal Representative will have in settling the estate; and what type of compensation the Personal Representative is entitled to receive in carrying out all of the fiduciary responsibilities involved in settling the estate.
Beneficiaries Named in the Will
All of the beneficiaries named in the Will are entitled to receive a copy of the Will in order for them to understand what they will be getting and how and when they will be getting it. If a beneficiary of the will is a minor, then the beneficiary's natural or legal guardian must be given a copy of the Will on behalf of the minor.
Heirs at Law and/or Prior Beneficiaries
If the estate attorney anticipates that a will contest will be filed to challenge the validity of the Testator's Will, then, in addition to the actual beneficiaries named in the Will, the estate attorney may choose to send a copy of the Will to the heirs at law of the Testator who are not named in the Will or to the beneficiaries named in the Testator's prior Will. This will serve to limit the amount of time that the disinherited beneficiaries can file a will contest to a specific period of time.
Accountant for the Estate
The accountant for the estate must receive a copy of the Will in order to understand any instructions given for paying off the debts of the estate; apportionment of estate and income taxes; instructions on the allocation between estate income and principal; when and if estate accountings need to be given to the estate's beneficiaries and filed with the probate court; and what powers the Personal Representative has in settling and compromising claims filed against the estate and paying estate taxes and income taxes.
Successor Trustee of the Testator's Revocable Living Trust
If the Last Will and Testament is a Pour Over Will, meaning that the Testator had a Revocable Living Trust that was not completely funded prior to death, and a probate proceeding is required, then the Successor Trustee of the trust must receive a copy of the Pour Over Will. This will allow the Personal Representative and Successor Trustee, particularly if they are not one in the same person or entity, to understand how they must work together to settle the Testator's trust and probate estate.
IRS and/or State Taxing Authority
If the estate is taxable for federal and/or state estate tax purposes, then a copy of the Last Will and Testament must be submitted to the IRS and/or applicable state taxing authority along with the estate tax return.
Remember: Wills Are Public Record
Of course, once a Last Will and Testament is filed for probate with the appropriate state court, it becomes a public court record for anyone to see and read. In certain circumstances, such as in the case of a famous or infamous Testator, the beneficiaries of the Will can request that the probate judge seal the probate court records to prevent the general public from viewing the Will and other probate documents, but the probate judge will grant this request only in rare situations, such as in the case of Michael Jackson's estate - his court records have been ordered to be sealed.How to Open a Probate Estate