Reading of the Will: How Does it Work?
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Reading of the Will: How Does it Work?

How does reading of the Will work? FastWill is here to answer this very common Estate Planning question. Scroll down to read the full article and find out how this process works.

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Mystery novels and movies love the trope of a scene with the reading of the will. Often used for dramatic effect, the reading of the will collects a group of family members, plus sometimes friends or colleagues, into a room to hear the last will of a deceased. One of the most recent depictions of a will reading is in the 2019 film Knives Out. In the film, the family of the deceased Harlan Thrombey, a famous mystery novelist, awaits the reading of the will to learn who inherits his vast publishing fortune. 

As Harlan’s family members (played by performers Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Katherine Langford) hear the will's beneficiary (the inheritor), they’re shocked, angry, and bitter. Chaos ensues as the family members bicker over the last will and testament. So, is the reading of the will like this in real life?

The Actual Reading of the Will

No, the Hollywood version IS reel life! It’s not rooted in reality, yet it makes for a great movie scene. The real-life process is routine. Instead, the will goes to the probate court, which handles all matters of wills, trusts, and property of a person, called a testator, after their death. The will filing timeline depends on the state; many states feature a deadline of up to 90 days.  The probate court determines if the will is valid by looking at its signatures, dates, and witnesses. Sometimes a will is self-proving, meaning that it comes with a sworn statement by a witness testifying to its validity. Self-proving wills, however, aren’t valid in certain jurisdictions such as the District of Columbia, Maryland, or Ohio.

After the will’s deemed valid, the probate court appoints an executor. The executor’s job is to sort out issues of the will. Some states, like Washington, call this individual a personal representative and use the terms interchangeably. The executor may be in the will, making the probate process quicker than if the court had to choose an executor. The court determines if the executor is fit, and if they are, the probate process begins. Most movies and TV shows depict an executor as a shrewd attorney, but an executor is often a relative, such as an adult child or sibling. 

How Long After a Death is the Will Read?

During probate, the deceased’s beneficiaries receive a copy of the will, so the contents aren’t shocking. You can imagine how boring a movie or TV scene would be! Once the probate court receives the will, the executor contacts the beneficiaries and heirs to send them copies of the will within 60 days of filing. The beneficiaries can then read the will independently and ask the executor questions about the probate process. The executor may also notify the disinherited so they can contest, or argue again, the will’s validity. Family members often don’t even read the will together in the same room unless they choose to do so. This may also be time for distant cousins and other relatives to pop up, trying to lay a claim to the estate once they’ve heard about the recent death of their family member. 

Many people assume, thanks to movies and television, that a will reading is quickly after the death of a person, sometimes even just days later. Once again, that’s reel life. The real probate process can take up to seven or nine months or sometimes up to a year. During probate, the executor takes an inventory of assets and liabilities, such as the deceased’s outstanding debts and taxes, if any. The only time limit here is the notification of beneficiaries. During probate, claims and lawsuits against the estate may arise, drawing the process even longer. 

When Do You Get Your Stuff?

Movies and TV also grant immediate ownership of an asset to a beneficiary in a will reading, but this isn’t the case. Beneficiaries can get their inheritance after the probate process ends, but if family members contest the will or the estate features legal hurdles. After the court agrees on the estate’s value, the liabilities are handled, and the beneficiaries are contacted, finally, it’s time for the asset division. 

The asset distribution can take up to six months to a year, though it’s common for it to take around eight to nine months.

It’s common for a beneficiary to request that a certain asset like a house be distributed before others. In this case, a house would be put up for sale once the probate court permits the beneficiaries to do so. People in this position may want to sell the house quickly in a favorable market or perhaps settle the deceased’s tax and debt obligations quicker. 

Wills as a Vital Document

The truth is that reading a will is nothing like it appears in movies. You can see why Hollywood plays a bit fast and loose with the facts of probate since scenes of paperwork and discussion are quite boring. The wills aren’t read in a great room while everyone speaks in hushed voices, but instead, the beneficiaries receive notice by phone, email, and sometimes postal mail. They can freely read the will to see if they stand to inherit anything and the wishes of the deceased. 

However, a will is an excellent way to ensure your wishes are met and that everyone knows who inherits what. You might not give them a dramatic gasp or melee ala Knives Out, but they will certainly appreciate how you left your affairs in order. Your will can name the individuals of your inheritance, who will take care of your pet, any charitable donations you want to be made, and any other terms and conditions you stipulate. 

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