View Full Version : Anyone know what goes on at a will-reading?

12-30-2005, 03:50 AM
They read the will. Yes, I know that. But I was wondering if anyone knew anything about the finer details eg: how a will is set out, how long the will-reading usually last for, what the listed relatives need to sign, the formalities ect...

Are there any lawyers here who are familiar with this sort of thing, and can fill me in? Anything anyone can tell me would be greatly appreciated, no matter how small or large. Thanks.

Cathy C
12-30-2005, 04:18 AM
The law firm I worked with for about 15 years did hundreds of wills for clients. I have to say that during the whole time I worked there, there were only three actual will readings -- that is to say that the devisees were unaware of the contents of the will prior to the death of the person.

Usually, the PR (Personal Representative) simply sent a letter of instruction about the bequests. Occasionally, we would get a client that didn't want the family members to know the details of the will. This sometimes happened if the client wished to donate a large sum to charity or an organization and didn't want the children to know. The attorney would generally enourage the testator/testatrix (the proper term for the signer of the will) to talk to them to avoid future problems. If there was any question that an otherwise legal heir would be cut out of the will, or given less than what state law would otherwise grant them had the decedent died intestate (without a will), then the attorney would take great pains to document conversations (sometimes going so far as to tape record them, with the knowledge of the client) so that the Probate Court would know that a) the decedent was of sound mind when the will was signed (a requirement); b) that the decedent made statements to independent witnesses (a requirement) of their intent to split the estate as was written; and c) that the will was signed of their own free will (a requirement).

Only in VERY large estates where there is considerable disfunction (the heirs and the decedent didn't have contact or it was hostile contact) is there actually a will reading. Is there a particular reason why you need this to happen? If it's important, I can run through the details of how it happens. Remember that it will be a generally hostile meeting. Sometimes just quiet fuming and other times a scene that would make Jerry Springer proud.

12-30-2005, 04:47 AM
Thank you so much, CathyC! That was very enlightening! No/hostile contact you say? Sounds like my characters. Basically, this guy has an uncle who is really awful, and no one in the whole family (which isn't particularly large anyway) likes him. Then he dies, and his nephew inherits his house. So whatever contact the two would have had would have been hostile. Would that warrant a will reading?

12-30-2005, 05:30 AM
Oh, you don't want to go to one of those. Next thing you know, the potential beneficiaries start dying off until there are just two left. That's when you know you're really in trouble. ;)

When my father died, everything went to my mother as it should. When she died later, my sisters and I did our best to divide everything equally. When there were object of roughly the same value that couldn't be divided, we let those go to whoever treasured those most while seeing to it that each still got something of the same value. In both cases, there really wasn't a will.

I do have a will. Right now, it specifies that first my wife gets everything. The kids get an even split if my wife doesn't survive me.

Cathy C
12-30-2005, 06:01 AM
The best way to start this discussion is to think what would happen if the uncle DIDN'T have a will. Most state law has the following structure:

Man to wife
If no wife living, to children
If no children living, to parents
If no parents living, to siblings
If no siblings living, to heirs of siblings
If no heirs of siblings living, to grandparents, cousins and more distant relatives

So, if the uncle didn't have a wife or kids, and the parents were dead, then normally his assets would go to his brother/sister without a will. So, they would be expecting that to happen, because it probably wouldn't occur to them that he WOULD leave a will (if you think bad things about a person, "stupid/not bright" is normally one of them.)

Now, first let's talk terminology (and since both parties are male, we'll go from there). Since the will signing will be held in the attorney's office, the attorney character will use the proper terminology. He will call the uncle either "my client", "the decedent" or "Mr. [insert last name]":

Testator (person who signs will, before they die)
Decedent (will signer after death)
Testate Probate (one that is with a will)
Intestate Probate (one that is without a will)
Estate (the assets of the Decedent)
Residuary Estate (all or any unknown assets of the Decedent -- such as if there were life insurance policies on his life that he wasn't aware of, such as a small policy attached to a checking account, so they're not specifically named in the will.)
Heir (person who inherits within line of family)
Devisee (person -- like a friend or neighbor -- who inherits OUTSIDE line of family)
Personal Representative (person who assumes the duties of filing probate, paying estate taxes, etc.)
Probate (the act of distributing the estate of the Decedent. It can be either a formal or informal process, but must be started and completed in a Court of law.)
Probate Court (the court which oversees distribution of the will. In large cities there is an ACTUAL probate court where estate issues is all they do. In smaller areas, the District Court has certain judges assigned to handle probates.)
Formal Probate (one that is administered by the court, so that the Personal Representative has to get permission to act)
Informal Probate (one that has the details handled privately and the PR only reports to the court if there are problems)
Letters Testamentary (a formal document signed by the Judge that authorizes the PR to act on behalf of the Decedent in distributing the assets. With this document, the PR has the ability to open or close bank accounts, transfer title to vehicles and houses, sell stocks, open safe deposit boxes. Anything the Decedent himself could have done if alive.)

Next is the will itself. It can either be a typed document prepared by an attorney's office or a "holographic" will. This is a will that is entirely written by hand by the Decedent. Most states allow a holographic will to be admitted to probate, because the intent of the Decedent is clear by the writing of it. Any change to the will after it is originally signed is made by a "Codicil" which is separately signed and witnessed.

A will consists of the following parts:

1) Instructions as to Death Taxes. The IRS wants their due. This can either be paid by cash from accounts owned by the Decedent or by sale of assets (like a house). If the nephew inherits, and the house was ALL there was, taxes will be an issue. Taxes should be paid BEFORE the assets are distributed.

2) Statement as to Family. This is where the Decedent would inform the world at large whether he has "in-line" heirs.

3) Tangible Personal Property. This is where specific things of value are stated. House, cars, jewelry, etc. It also states who they go to, so your attorney will use the term as he's reading.

4) Residual Property. This is "everything else" that the Decedent might have forgotten about or didn't know about (as explained above.)

5) Personal Representative. This section is where the PR is appointed. This has to be done WITH PERMISSION, so if it's a surprise appointment, the PR has to accept. Nobody can be forced to be PR.

6) Statement of Definitions. Most attorneys include a blanket statement that the will uses the same terminology as statute, just so everybody who reads it is on the same page.

7) Declaration. This is where the Testator signs in front of witnesses and states his mental soundness and intent to sign of free will.

8) Affidavit of Proof. This restates the declaration of free will (just to be sure) says that the person is of age (usually 18) to sign, and intends this to be his final say about his estate.

Now, the set-up in the attorney's office would be that a letter is sent to the parties named in the will and an agreed-upon date for the reading is made. Nobody who is a named heir or devisee would be left out, so the date would be whenever they can ALL meet in the office. For small readings, it can be in the attorney's office, but normally is in a conference room. If the attorney believes there could be trouble, and IF the attorney rents/leases space in an office building, the attorney might request the presence of a security officer. If the law firm owns the building, or it's a smaller stand-alone office, then the attorney will probably contact the local police department or sheriff's office and request attendance by an officer in uniform. This heads off most problems. The uniform's time is paid for out of the estate assets. A will reading is private, so the attorney (and quite possibly an associate attorney who is learning the ropes) will bring everybody into the room and close the doors. The uniform remains outside, within ear shot of LOUD voices, in case of problems, but not so near that they can hear the details of the will.

The attorney reads the ENTIRE will (but for your purposes, it's not necessary. You can type the first few sentences as dialogue and then have your nephew comment on other things in the room. Nobody is to ask questions until after the full reading, so the attorney would state this beforehand. The attorney normally ignores surprised exclamations of dismay or shock and continues to read. At the end of the reading, the attorney will ask if there are any questions. If people yell or swear loudly, the attorney will ask the person to calm down (and occasionally to SIT down) or he will bring in the officer to restore order. Normally, this works. If not, then the officer descends and either restores order verbally or removes the violent person to the outer office, or outside. Arrests seldom happen, because people calm down. But throwing a punch or shoving will get the person hauled downtown for assault. Photocopies of the will are provided to the heirs on request, especially if it's apparent that they plan to contest the will. The attorney requests contact information for those who plan to contest so that they can be notified of the Probate case number and date for hearing. Most of the time, the attorney who makes the will files the probate, but not every time. Sometimes, the PR will handle it all themselves.

Everybody leaves (with or without uniformed assistance... ;) ) and that's the end.

How's that for a run-down? :D

12-30-2005, 03:56 PM
Cathy C:

Heck, my book doesn't have a will-reading in it, but your detailed run-down makes one sound so fascinating ... I'm begining to wonder if I should fit one in!

Hmmm... since my WIP is a historical novel set in Shanghai at the end of the Qing Dynasty ... maybe I better not ... eh, what?

12-31-2005, 02:05 AM
Wow! CathyC! Fantastic! I just can't thank you enough, but I'll try! Thank you thank you thank you!!!!!! I just printed that out, and now I can continue with my story. That was a fanastic run-down, and it covered all the questions I could possible have had!

01-04-2006, 03:36 AM
Very interesting Cathy.
I spent my entire career administering Trusts and Estates - mostly in UK - and only once read a Will aloud. Indeed there was no formal procedure for it. In this particular case the major beneficiary thought it a good idea to have the Will read. So it was - informally, at home with the family present.
Sizeable though the estate was, 99% of the lengthy Will was boring as hell - mostly routine administrative clauses which I dutifully ploughed through despite suggesting that they were not of any particular relevance.
Purely for interest, I found most family disputes arose over furniture and personal effects. Estate Administration gave me a tremendous fund of stories which I have so far hesitated to put into writing until I can work out ways of disguising who's who, where, when and what etc.;)