A last will and testament states who gets someone's property and belongings once they pass away. Unlike what you’ve seen or read in pop culture, there is no formal “reading of the will.” If the deceased had a vast and complex estate, it’s possible that their lawyer would gather family members to read them the will. But for the most part, people named in a will find out through the executor who is in charge of the deceased’s estate.
It is the executor’s job to file the will in court to begin the probate process, which proves the will, and ultimately disburses any inheritance. If you think you’re named in someone’s will and you know who the executor is, you can always ask them, though they may not be obligated to tell you until after they’ve petitioned the court to start probate and received letters testamentary.
→ Relatedly, here's how to find out if someone died
While the testator (will writer) is alive, there’s nothing stopping them from letting you know that you’re named in the will, or even showing it to you. It’s probably not uncommon for someone to disclose the details of their will to their spouse or child or give them a copy. It’s ultimately at their discretion though, so some people with a will may choose not to reveal its contents ahead of time and prefer to keep the beneficiaries of the will a secret, in which case you’ll have to wait until after they've died to find out from the executor.
A formal reading of the will is a fictional event that doesn’t typically happen in real life
If you’re named in a will, you’ll be notified by the executor once probate has been initiated
It's not illegal for someone to show you their will before they die, or tell you that you’re named in it
How do you know if you are mentioned in a will?
After the testator dies, it is the executor’s responsibility to file the will with the court in the county where the deceased resided. Once probate has been initiated, any named beneficiaries are notified of the will and any upcoming probate hearing. It is during this time that potential heirs can decide whether or not they want to contest the will.
The executor may also notify other family members who aren’t explicitly named in the will because they could have a legal right to inherit if the will is found to be invalid. (Having an invalid will is the same as dying without a will or intestate.)
If the will instructs the deceased’s assets to pour over into a trust, the executor should also tell the trustee.
How long does it take to be notified of a will?
If you are named in a will, you may not be notified immediately after the testator passes away, since it may take time for the executor to find out about the testator’s death and find the will. (That’s why you should store your will somewhere your executor can find it.)
Many states set a timeline to guide the probate process. Once the executor finds the will, they must file the will with the probate court within a certain window of time. This commonly ranges from a few weeks to a month — but in some cases, the state may allow as long as a few years for an estate probate proceeding to begin, which means you may not be notified for years.
After the will has been probated by the court and found to be valid, named beneficiaries are usually notified again and updated with this new discovery by the executor.
→ Read about how long probate takes
Can you look up if someone has a will?
In some states, county court offices can store people’s wills for safekeeping. If someone filed their will with the court during their lifetime, its contents will remain private to the testator until they pass away.
Filing the will with the court can be convenient because once the court is notified of the testator’s death, they can notify the appropriate people to get probate started, like the deceased's family and any named executor.
Once a will has been probated and found to be legitimate, it becomes part of the public record, and then anyone can find it in the court's recording system.