We’ve all seen movie scenes depicting the heirs and friends of the dearly departed gathered in a lawyer’s office for a suspense filled “reading of the Will.” This is usually accompanied by some dramatic event, such as an “outsider” or new love interest inheriting the bulk of the estate, the sudden appearance of a child nobody knew about, snide comments written into the Will, or the revelation of a scandalous family secret.
Unfortunately, the popular saying that “truth is stranger than fiction” does not apply in this situation. There is no longer a formal “reading of the Will” in California. The need for that faded away with the creation of the photocopier. Nowadays, a copy of the Will is almost always mailed to everyone mentioned in the Will and to the decedent’s “heirs at law” — meaning the family members who would have inherited if the decedent had died without a Will. The original of the Will is deposited with the probate court, where it becomes a public document for anyone to see. (You might want to keep that in mind when you’re deciding what to say in your Will.) On very rare occasions, an attorney may choose to hold a more formal “reading,” but that almost never happens. Most probate attorneys will never hold one and probably never know of anyone who did.
That doesn’t mean that surprises no longer happen in Wills. On the contrary, every now and again a Will comes along that is just as notable as they are in the movies. But that is rare. Most Wills are fairly routine — no scandals, no secret child, no shocking bequests. A good number of Wills in California do not even reveal the identities of the people receiving an inheritance, nor the type or amount they will be receiving. This is because the use of living trusts is very popular in California. Trusts are not routinely deposited with the court as a public record. Wills that accompany the use of a trust usually only recite that property passing under the Will will go into the trust. It is the trust, not the Will, that contains the details.
So if you’re searching for drama, you will not find it at a “reading of the Will.”