One question which we are often asked when acting for beneficiaries of an estate (or those who believe they should have been beneficiaries) is ‘do I have a right to see the will?’ I am frequently contacted by people who have been prompted to call because they are disappointed that they have not heard about when a will is going to be read – and they are even more disappointed when I explain that a formal reading, by a solicitor, with the accompanying gasps and fallouts, is really the preserve of soap operas!
Prior to a Grant being issued, the will is the property of the executors from the date of death of the testator. The executors are the ones who can decide whether or not a copy should be provided to other people. Most executors will take a reasonable view on this – once I explain that it will become public property on the issue of the Grant, and that it would be disclosable in either contentious probate or Inheritance Act proceedings, they normally realise that there is little advantage to be had in withholding it.
Of course, this is not always the case, and I have had beneficiary clients who have had to fight to see a will. If you know who has a will, then you can issue a subpoena to have it delivered into Court. There is no defence to the subpoena once issued, and it contains a penal notice so you can normally be sure that it will be complied with.
Once a Grant is issued, then a will is a matter of public record. Grants and wills can be searched for here – a great website which will indicate immediately if there is a Grant and whether or not there is a will, and will deliver the documents within 10 working days for £10.
One practical issue is that it may be difficult in the early days after a death to know where the executors are. I have recently dealt with a case where the children of the deceased were not named as executors, but wanted to know who was so that they could make practical arrangements (such as freezing bank accounts). My firm made and stored the will so we were able to quickly contact the executors and inform them of the position. This may be more difficult where the testator has a homemade will which does not contain the addresses or contact details of the executors, or the executors have moved and not kept in touch. Testators should probably be advised to give as many contact details as possible for their executors (and these days, that should include email addresses), to inform their executors of the contents of the will if at all possible, and to periodically keep in touch so that the will can be updated if the testator moves.