Who is entitled to read a will after death?

When someone dies, they will normally have left a Will – a document that is used to communicate what happens to the person’s assets when they die. The Will is normally left with either loved ones, at the bank, with an accountant, or with a solicitor. In the event of the person’s death, an appointed executor of the Will is given the original document to ensure that the actions as detailed in the Will are carried out.

Normally the Will provides details of who the beneficiaries of the person’s property are, but in England and Wales, only the executor who is named within the Will may see the document until probate has been issued. Until this point, the Will remains private, in the hands of the executor.

What is probate?

When it comes to dealing with the property of someone who has died, probate refers to the process of getting legal authority to carry out their wishes through their Will. There are many rules relating to how a person can deal with a Will, and a grant of probate essentially allows you to do it.

The executor of a Will is the person who carries out the probate, ensures that the deceased’s debts and credits are balanced and that their estate is properly distributed according to the Will. A person’s estate can consist of their finances, their property, any shares that they own, and their personal possessions. In England and Wales, probate is not always required, but it is usually needed if the deceased person owns property or has significant assets that are in their name alone.

It is the organisations that the deceased held assets with that determine whether a Grant of Probate is needed. Once the Grant of Probate has been issued for the person’s Will, it can be made public and anyone who wishes to see it may apply for a copy of it at the Probate Registry. It is important to note, however, that if probate has not been applied for (or granted) the Will is not held at the Probate Registry and therefore cannot be seen and kept private.

The executor

The executor of the Will is the person who is responsible for ensuring that the wishes of the deceased person are carried out and that their property is accurately distributed – after their debts have been paid off. Their main responsibility as the executor is to notify the beneficiaries of the Will that:

1. The deceased has passed away

2. They are the nominated executor of the Will

3. They have inherited something (or an amount of money) and what it is

Reading of the will

The question of who can see the Will and when is an important one. The law states that before probate is granted, only the appointed executor may read the Will. It also states that if anyone asks to see it (including asking institutions such as solicitors or banks to see it), this request could be refused but often organisations are just checking that the person requesting the information is named as an Executor and could avoid the delay in obtaining the Grant of Probate.

Once, however, the probate has been granted, the Will becomes a public document and the Will is available for anyone to read (providing that they have been granted permission by the Probate Registry and paid the fee). Sometimes people change their Will or write a new one. If this is the case, only the most recent and up-to-date version of the Will is available for people to see. Any previous Wills remain private. This is also the case if probate is not applied for. Most of the time, probate is not applied for when:

  • All of the deceased’s property and money is held jointly with one or more other people (a spouse, for example)
  • The estate only consists of personal belongings with no significant cash assets
  • None of the organisations that the deceased held assets with require the Grant of Probate to be obtained.

If this is the case, the Will remains in private, without being released to the public.

Requesting a copy of the will

If a beneficiary (or anybody) is looking to see a copy of the Will, they would make a request to the Probate Registry. If the beneficiary requests to see a copy of the Will that is refused by the executor, they should instruct a solicitor to start proceedings to enable them to see it.

It is unusual, but if the executor ignores the requests of the beneficiary and their instructed solicitor, a court application can be made that forces the executor to get probate, and, therefore, puts a copy of the Will into the public and enabling the beneficiary to see it. Contact Waldrons Solicitors today.

More information on Wills and Probate



Last reviewed on 11/07/23 by Dawn Cash who is Head of Private Client and an Associate Director