The Reading of the Will, by M. Geoffrey Jones

In this segment, Mr. Jones picks up on the fictions surrounding the disclosure of the last will and testament of someone who has died, and relates Washington law on the topic. 

One of the most common myths that is still deeply embedded in many lay people’s perceptions about probate is the idea of a ceremony for the “Reading of the Will”.

A Normal Setting for Reading of the Will

They picture a dramatic scene in which the lawyer assembles together all of the family and interested persons (invariably including the decedent’s longtime manservant) and reads aloud the Last Will and Testament of the deceased, unveiling for the first time the testator’s last words about who is to receive the various assets of the his estate.

Everyone gasps as it is revealed that the deceased millionaire has disinherited his greedy nieces and nephews and left his entire fortune to the butler, whom the testator discloses is really his bastard son from an illicit affair he had with the upstairs maid 30 years before. While such a scene does lend drama, human emotion and mystery to the probate process, it is purely an invention of Hollywood movies. In 25 years of probate practice, I’ve never conducted a “reading of the Will” nor have I ever found an attorney who has done this.

The Will is Read as its Author Looks On from the Grave.

The probate code is actually silent on the question of how the contents of a Will is to be revealed to the interested parties. RCW 11.20.010 imposes a duty on any person having in their possession, an Original Will, to either file it with the Court or deliver it to the named executor (who must then file it with the Court) within 40 days of the death of the testator.

There is then a process set forth in some detail for applying to the Court to probate the Will and appoint a Personal Representative of the Estate. Once the Personal Representative has been appointed, RCW 11.28.237 requires the Personal Representative to mail or personally serve a notice of the pendency of the probate to all heirs and beneficiaries. However, it doesn’t specifically require that a copy of the Will itself be mailed or served on the same heirs and beneficiaries.

By filing the original Will with the Court, it thereby becomes a public record and is available to be viewed by anyone interested in its contents. Thus, my practice is to send a copy of the Will to all of the interested parties along with the Notice of Pendency of Probate even though this is not statutorily required. And this is the usual method for revealing for the first time to the interested heirs and beneficiaries what the testator provided in his Last Will and Testament.

But since this process is so lacking in drama and mystery, the Hollywood screenwriters had to invent a convention for a formal “Reading of the Will”, and this myth continues to persist today. And I have to confess that I’m always a little disappointed that I’ve never had an opportunity to be part of such a dramatic vignette.

Next Segment: Don’t Let The Court Decide Who Will Receive Your Property.