You know that scene in movies or in televisions shows where a family gathers in a fancy lawyer’s office and they “read the will”? After the lawyer reads the will (or sometimes turns on a convenient nearby television to show your beloved parent or grandparent’s pre-recorded wishes), drama follows. This is called a “plot device” and it’s used to move the story along. However, real life does not need plot devices to create drama.
It is a common belief that the “reading of the will” is a normal thing and that it happens every time a person dies. While the reading of the will in film is dramatic – often being the beginning of a story or a plot twist used to create strife between family members – in reality, it is a myth. It rarely – if ever – actually happens.
So, what really happens?
First, you have to find the person’s last will and testament. Sometimes this is easy, especially if the deceased person told you where it is. Often, families already know what will be in a last will and testament because they were told. (Sometimes, there are surprises.)
If you cannot find the will, you may have search through the person’s personal papers. You may also have to contact local law firms or the county bar association. Many county bar associations will then send emails to all the attorneys that are members asking that they check their files for your loved ones last will and testament. (We receive a few of these requests a year.)
If a will still cannot be found, then it is assumed that the person never made a will. This is known as intestacy. The intestate statutes will then determine who will receive what from the person’s assets.
If the will is found, then the will must be probated. In New Jersey, probate simply means determining whether a person’s last will and testament is a valid, legal document. Your surrogate’s office will usually do this, unless someone decides to argue that it is not. If that happens, you might end up in the probate court and a judge will decide if the last will and testament is valid.
If no one argues the will is invalid, someone will also have to apply to be appointed as the administrator of the estate. While you can choose an executor in your will, the surrogate’s office must approve and appoint the person. Sometimes this means getting an insurance bond, which costs money.
Once a person is appointed as the administrator by the surrogate’s office, they will then have to administer the estate. The administration of an estate takes on average about 18 months, but sometimes it can take much, much longer.
So, if you have a family member who recently passed away and you were not invited to the “reading of the will,” it is not because you were left out of the will, it’s mostly likely because it never happened.
If you found out that you will be an executor or an administrator for someone’s estate, we can help. Schedule an Estate Administration Session with us here or by calling us at 856-298-4410.