Q. My brother-in-law just died, and I expected the entire family to be invited to a formal reading of his will. So far, nothing has been set up. Does that sound right?
A. Actually, yes it does. You have probably seen a number of old movies where, after a person’s death, his next of kin gather in the attorney’s office for a formal ‘reading of the will’. In the movies, the attorney somberly reads the will aloud while the family listens with anxious anticipation to learn how the decedent provided for them. Typically, the camera captures audience reaction as the decedent’s wishes are finally made known. In real life, however, that scenario does not occur.
Instead, the heirs and beneficiaries typically receive a copy of the will in connection with the commencement of a formal probate proceeding: Within 30 days of death, the original of the decedent’s Last Will must be lodged with the Superior Court clerk in the county of the decedent’s residence. If there is to be a probate of the will, the decedent’s attorney will then prepare a formal Notice of Petition To Administer the Estate and mail it to all heirs and beneficiaries. This formal Notice is usually accompanied by a true copy of the decedent’s will. If not, a copy of the will is available for viewing and copying at the clerk’s office as a public record.
However, even if there is no probate (for example, if the decedent held all assets in a trust), the original will is still kept in a secure file by the court clerk and there remains a semi-public record, available for viewing or copying upon showing the clerk the decedent’s death certificate or by obtaining a court order.
Essentially, each interested person receives, or can secure, a copy of the will to read for himself. That is typically how the ‘reading of the will’ actually occurs in today’s world.
Some have suggested that the former ceremony of reading the will has its roots in earlier times when literacy was not as common as it is today, and that the ceremonial reading aloud was therefore necessary to inform beneficiaries of the will’s contents. However, it is my guess that a more accurate explanation may have more to do with technology, i.e. the advent of copy machines. Certainly, in the days of Abraham Lincoln and even into the last century, copying a legal document for distribution to others would have been a labor-intensive process, usually performed by hand and therefore prone to error. In that context, reliance upon a single original made sense. By contrast, today we can quickly and accurately reproduce the decedent’s Last Will and easily distribute a true copy to as many persons who have a legitimate interest.
Hence, in today’s world there is no need for a solemn gathering to hear the reading aloud of the original Last Will, and the law does not require that an attorney do so. In fact, in all my years of practice, I have only been asked on one single occasion to read a will aloud to assembled family members, a request that I was happy to oblige out of respect for the family.