29 January 2015 | Comment | Article by Eleanor Evans TEP

The myth of the "reading of the will”

Eleanor considers the myth of the “reading of the will” often depicted in films and literature and explains how one can really go about locating a will.

I recently watched the Oscar nominated film “The Grand Budapest Hotel".  If you haven’t yet seen it, I thoroughly recommend it – Ralph Fiennes in particular is excellent as Gustave, a fragrant hotel concierge beloved of the elderly female guests.

A key scene in the film is the “reading of the will” of the late Madame Céline Villeneuve "Madame D" Desgoffe und Taxis, paramour of Gustave.  After her funeral, a large group of family members and interested parties gather together to hear her lawyer reading the terms of her will, to confirm who will benefit from her considerable estate.  Naturally, dramatic events subsequently ensue.

The “reading of the will” seems to be a common occurrence in fiction, but in reality is actually something of a myth.  I have often been asked by family members who have recently lost a loved one when the "reading of the will" is going to take place, and I will explain that, whilst this is something they may have seen in the movies or on television (often to great dramatic effect), in reality this is not something that actually happens.

So, what really happens?  Often, when making their will, people will have told their executors or family members that they have done so and where it is stored.  Sometimes people will have discussed the terms they have decided to include in their will with the family, so family members will already have an idea of what the will says.  It is usually necessary for the family to go through the deceased's papers which may well include a copy of the will and the storage details.  Sometimes people keep their original wills in a safe place at home (although we would always recommend that the original is stored in a solicitors' strong room or a bank).

If family members do not know any details about a will or where it might be stored, it is sensible to make enquiries with any firms of solicitors the deceased might have had dealings with in the past and the deceased's bank.  It is also possible to lodge wills with the probate registry, so checks can be made here.  If the family is sure the deceased had made a will, but just cannot locate it, it can be sensible to place advertisements in the newspaper and/or the Law Society Gazette.  There are also companies that hold registers of wills and, for a charge, can assist with searches by contacting all the solicitors' firms in the locality of the deceased.  The solicitors who are going to be dealing with the administration of the estate can make these sorts of checks on behalf of the estate.

Once the original will has been located or it has been established that no will can be found and it appears that the deceased died intestate (without leaving a will), the solicitors who are going to be dealing with the estate should make contact with all of the beneficiaries to let them know about their entitlement.  This will usually take the form of a letter to each beneficiary.  Residuary beneficiaries should be provided with a copy of the will (beneficiaries who are entitled to a specific item or sum of money, e.g. £10,000, will not be entitled to receive a copy).  The residuary beneficiaries should then be kept updated throughout the administration of the estate, until their entitlement is finally paid to them.

If anyone does wish to challenge the will, this does not happen at a “reading of the will” meeting (as is sometimes thought).  Anyone with a potential challenge will need to make an appointment with their own solicitor who will provide advice about their potential claim and contact the solicitors dealing with the estate.

So, if you have a family member who has passed away and you have not been invited to the “reading of the will”, you have not missed out.  As ever, it is simply the case that real life is rather more mundane than fiction.

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