How Do I Find Out The Contents Of A Will?

After somebody dies, "How do I find out the contents of a will?" is a common question. A common reason is that someone suspects they named as a beneficiary of the estate, although there are many potential reasons, including pure curiosity. The prospect of tracking down a copy of the will might initially seem daunting, but to find contents of a will is in many cases a simple process.

The first point to establish is that you can only view the will of someone who is deceased. If a person is still living, the will is considered their personal property, and you have no legal right to see it. The owner of the will may choose to share a copy with you or tell you what the contents of it are, but it is entirely at their discretion.
Once someone is deceased, anyone can view their will provided it has been granted probate. Probate is the legal process of sorting out a deceased person's estate, and most (though not all!) estates will require the executor getting a grant of probate. Once this application has been granted by the probate registry, the will is considered a court document and is legally accessible by anyone. This means you can easily find contents of a will.
In England and Wales, the easiest way to access a copy of a will that has been granted probate is online. You can search the records for the will you wish to see, and order a copy of it from there. Each copy costs £10 and can take up to 10 working days to arrive. It is also possible to perform the search by post, using a form called PA1S. The postal search costs £10 regardless of whether it results in a will, although the cost of a copy of the will is included if one is found, and a response can take up to 4 weeks.
If the death occurred within the last six months and probate has not yet been granted, you can apply for something known as a "standing search". This means that if a grant of representation is issued in the following six months, you will automatically receive a copy of it. The standing search can be extended if the grant is not issued within the following six months.
Sometimes probate is not needed. This is often the case for estates of a very low value, and estates that are comprised entirely of joint assets. In these cases, only the executor of the estate has the legal right to view the will. The executor may choose to tell you the contents of the will, or even share a copy of it, but if you are not an executor you have no guaranteed right to the knowledge of what the will entails.
If you're asking yourself, "How do I find out the contents of a will?" it is important to remember that the process is usually straightforward, though a bit slow. The vast majority of estates will be registered for probate, and in this case, anybody can view a copy of the will. In some cases, probate is not necessary, and in these cases, you may not have a right to see the will at all. However, these cases are the exception, and even if you suspect probate was unnecessary, it is worth checking the probate register online to be certain.