News that Prince Philip’s Will is to be kept sealed for at least 90 years has highlighted the reality that, without some form of judicial intervention, people’s final wishes are generally open to inspection.
The decision, which is planned to be reviewed in just under a century’s time, is said to have been taken in order to protect the Queen’s dignity and standing. So, for now, details of Prince Philip’s estate and his beneficiaries will remain under wraps. But this has sparked conversations about what usually happens to a person’s Will once they have passed away. Who takes charge of it? And who gets to read its contents
Making a Will might seem a private matter, and in many respects it is. Your Will is yours. It’s not for anybody else to tell you what to include in it – in fact, undue influence could render the Will invalid. Your solicitor will advise you, personally, on a one-to-one basis. They’ll discuss with you the types of things to consider, and the best ways of structuring the allocation of your assets. Ultimately, they will follow your instructions; implement your decisions. And at that point, the lid is usually placed on a Will and it is safely stored away.
That said, Wills do not necessarily remain private. You shouldn’t expect yours to be widely read after you have passed away, but once a grant of probate (the authority for the executor(s) to start dealing with your estate) has been issued, your Will becomes publicly available. Anyone could request a copy via the government website. It’s another reason to consider very carefully what you put in your Will. If there are things you wouldn’t want to be made public (certain instructions or explanations, for example) your solicitor will be able to help you express these elsewhere – usually in a separate, private, ‘letter of wishes’.
Clients often ask us about the process of ‘reading a Will’. They picture a gathering of family members, a solicitor, and maybe a Chesterfield and a crackling fire. But this doesn’t normally happen. Instead, the person appointed as the executor will take the reins. He or she (or maybe they, as there an be more than one) will get hold of the Will, usually from the deceased’s solicitor, and will apply to the probate registry for the grant of probate. Once the green light has been given to start administering the deceased’s estate, beneficiaries will usually be notified of their entitlements. However, not all will be entitled to see precise details relating to the deceased’s assets and liabilities.
What if you are excluded from this, perhaps because you are not a beneficiary, or because the executor doesn’t appear to be doing everything they should? Applying to see a copy of the Will could be an option worth pursuing. The terms of a loved one’s Will can sometimes take family members by surprise, and some feel it’s therefore important to see the Will for themselves. This could also be the starting point if the Will is to be challenged, or if a claim to entitlement based on dependency is being considered.
There are huge sensitivities around Wills. As lawyers who specialise in helping people and families manage their affairs, we understand the emotional challenges that come with preparing for the future, and also of course in dealing with the loss of a loved one and the practical arrangements after their death. We encourage people not to shy away from making plans, nor from having related conversations with those close to them. Because while your future planning – your Will, your trusts, your investments – may be for you alone to put in place, it stands to significantly affect those important people in your life. Your plans can become their future.