One of the most popular ideas about estate planning involves the well-known reading of the will. You’ve no doubt seen the scene a hundred times in film or television; an attorney gathers together the family members of a deceased person and reads them the terms of the last will and testament, often with dramatic results. This image is so well known that many people take it for granted that these reading of the will ceremonies are a common part of the estate planning process.
The reality is quite different. In fact, readings of the will are almost entirely a creation of fiction writers. They don’t happen. Today, as part of our ongoing series on understanding estate planning in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, we are going to look at why this is.
Last Wills and Probate
A will becomes part of the probate process after the testator (the person who made it) dies and someone submits the will to a probate court. The court has the responsibility of determining if the document meets state legal standards. If the will is properly made, the court will accept it as a valid expression of the decedent’s last wishes and authorize the personal representative of the estate to follow the terms of the will in distributing estate property to the beneficiaries.
The probate process is part of a public record, meaning it is open to public inspection. Anyone who wishes can go to a local courthouse and look at the probate court’s records, including the terms of the will.
The personal representative, also called executor or administrator, has a responsibility to notify interested parties about the probate. This includes publishing notice and sending them copies of the will.
Reading of the Will
A reading of the will is not a part of the modern probate process. In times past when literacy rates were low and technology did not allow for easy travel, it might have been a good idea to schedule a time when everyone could come together to hear the terms of a will read aloud.
Today no such ceremonies occur because they are unnecessary and superfluous. States do not require a reading of the will ceremony and they just do not happen today.
Nevertheless, the notion remains that readings of the will are important because they let the family know what the testator wanted. If this is a concern, you can simply let your family know your choices while you are alive–this is often the best way to keep them informed. If you’re uncomfortable doing this in person, you can leave a letter of instruction for your executor who can explain your choices after you are gone, or you or the executor can mail everyone copies of your will. There’s simply no need for a reading of the will ceremony.