The simple answer to this question is any time after the death of the individual. While the legal profession is renowned for its formality, this is not necessarily the case with reading a will.
What is a will?
In its most basic format, a will is a legal document containing instructions for the distribution of assets upon the death of an individual. There are several different elements to a will which include:
Before their death, an individual can appoint one or more executors to carry out the instructions of their will. Usually, this would be a solicitor or accountant. However, in some cases, a family member or even a close friend may be appointed. The brief is simple, carry out the provisions of the will to the letter of the law.
As the term suggests, the beneficiaries of a will inherit various assets and money per the deceased's instructions. While there are occasions where people can challenge a will in court, usually, they are carried out in full.
The instructions within a will detail how and when each beneficiary will receive their inheritance. For example, some inheritance payments may be put into trust and funds released to the beneficiary annually. Where young children are involved, funds may be held in trust and made available on turning 18, 21 or another predefined age.
Where the deceased has young children, there may be an instruction regarding future guardianship, a vital role that may have been discussed with those involved before death. It is unlikely that a request to become a guardian for young children will surprise those involved.
Locating a will after death
Death, taxes and wills are not the easiest subjects to discuss amongst family and friends, but it is vital to locate a will as soon as possible. You tend to find that people will discuss the location of their instructions with friends and family or perhaps their accountant or solicitor. Some of the more common places to store wills include:
- In their home
- At their bank
- With an accountant or solicitor
Once a will has been located, the executors must apply for probate, giving them legal control over the deceased's estate. In effect, probate will officially appoint the executors to manage the deceased's affairs. However, on occasion, where a relatively small amount of assets are available (traditionally under £5000), probate may not be required.
Once probate has been granted, the deceased's will becomes a public document, available to everybody.
Who is allowed sight of a will?
Before probate, the details of an individual’s will remain private. Legally, the only person that needs sight of a will before probate is the executor(s). This will surprise many people as family and potential beneficiaries do not have an automatic right of sight.
Presumed beneficiaries can request sight of the will from the executor with a formal letter of instruction. If this is refused, the next course of action would be an appeal to the courts, which may grant legal access to the will. In reality, those who should have access to the will before probate are commonly listed as part of the instructions. Therefore, if the executors fail to carry out these instructions by refusing access, they may be exposing themselves to legal action.
The reading of the will
As we touched on above, many TV programmes create unrealistic expectations regarding the reading of wills and how beneficiaries are informed. Many people will be surprised to learn that there is no formal legal timeframe during which a will must be read. Indeed, there is no standard legal timeframe during which the instructions of a will must be executed. Surprised?
In the modern era, beneficiaries may be informed by post, telephone, meeting, or email regarding their inheritance. However, unless specifically requested as part of the deceased's instructions, a family get-together to read a will is unlikely.
Informal timetable when reading a will
While it may sound a little cold, the process of executing a will begins almost immediately upon death. Therefore, in practical terms, the will should be read as soon as possible to address several issues, such as:
While not the most straightforward subject to broach with parents or family members, many people include specific instructions for their funeral in their will. Where possible, these instructions should be respected and executed as requested. Burial costs are also a common element of a modern-day will, with money often put aside or funeral plans previously put in place.
Dividing up the assets
The sooner the process of dividing up assets begins, the sooner beneficiaries can receive their inheritance. In many cases, beneficiaries may have been financially dependent on the deceased. Therefore, they may struggle in the immediate aftermath of their death. Short-term financial hardship is a brutal reality for many people after the death of a loved one.
There are many reasons why beneficiaries or non-beneficiaries to a will may look to raise objections. Therefore, if a will is read sooner rather than later, this will clarify the situation, avoid confusion and allow some individuals to consider their positions. It is important to note that non-beneficiaries have no legal right to see a will, but within family circles, rumours and counter rumours can spread very quickly.
Useful third parties
Whether or not an accountant, solicitor or financial adviser is named executor, they will often play a significant role in organising and liquidating assets and dividing them amongst beneficiaries. An early reading of the will allows the executors to contact potentially useful third parties and inform them of the situation. After the granting of probate, executors control the deceased’s estate. They have several legal rights regarding the appointment of third parties to assist.
They say there are only two things that are certain in life, death and taxes. Unfortunately, the reality of inheritance tax (IHT) is something many people in the UK will face upon the death of a partner, family member or friend. An early reading of the deceased instructions will allow tax planning to begin and an assessment of what may be due to HMRC.
Unless there are mitigating circumstances, the executors are legally obliged to fulfil any IHT obligations to HMRC within six months. This timetable begins from the last day of the month the decedent passed away. Failure to pay inheritance tax on time could lead to fines and interest charges which would come out of the estate.
In reality, there may be some assets, like property, which can take some time to liquidate. In this situation, the executors would make arrangements for annual IHT instalments with HMRC up to a maximum ten-year timescale. There will still be charges and interest on outstanding IHT liabilities after the traditional six-month deadline. Still, it is advisable to arrange a formal payment schedule where possible.
What happens if someone dies without a will?
Where an individual dies without a will, often referred to as intestate, their estate will be transferred into probate. In effect, the deceased's estate will be controlled by the courts, who will decide on the split of assets amongst potential beneficiaries. Upon application, the court may grant probate to connected individuals so they can take control of the estate.
There are several parties legally allowed to apply for probate where there is no will:
- Next of kin
- Civil partner
As one or more of these parties may have been financially dependent upon the deceased, it is vital to start this process as soon as possible.
Can you contest a will?
There are numerous reasons why individuals may contest a will, such as medical grounds or legal entitlement. As we delve deeper, the early reading of a will becomes more important because you may only have as little as six months to contest a will. If you are in this situation, it is vital to take legal advice as soon as possible, then begin proceedings.
Even though the contesting of wills is often seen as taboo, there are numerous scenarios where it is legitimate. All objections will go through the courts and a ruling issued on the legal standing, setting aside what can often be high emotions at the time.
Updating your will
While not necessarily on an annual basis, you must review and update your will regularly. There are numerous issues to take into consideration, such as:
Change in executors
Whether you have fallen out with a previously appointed executor or they have died, your list of executors must be up-to-date. If the list is out of date, this will almost certainly cause a delay in executing your instructions.
Separating from spouse
If you have physically separated from your spouse, but there are still formal ties, this can cause problems. Until your divorce is finalised, your ex-spouse may still be entitled to a share of your estate.
Many people are not aware, but the act of marriage or remarriage will, in effect, invalidate all previous wills. Consequently, where you had children with your previous partner, they may be left financially exposed. Therefore, it is essential to address ex-partners and children from previous relationships when writing your will. Do not assume that the law will always cater for your nearest and dearest!
When is a will read after death? The realities
Many people will be astounded to learn there is no formal timetable for the reading of a will. However, they are typically read as soon as possible after death. We have also highlighted the role of executors and the power to withhold sight of the will from third parties. There is a general misconception that the reading of a will is a dramatic family event, with everyone gathered around the table hanging on the every word of the executors.
In reality, the process and the timetable are much more informal. However, there are still several issues you need to be aware of.