Sharing the will with the family

6 min read

Key points about sharing the will

  • Technically the executor of the will is under no obligation to share the whole will with beneficiaries. Once it is filed, they can request a copy from the court, as it is public record.

  • It is a good idea to share the contents of the will with each beneficiary to establish open communication

  • Also talk to them about the process, your role, any any services you will be hiring.

  • Remind everyone that a will is a legal document, not a letter from your loved one, and not to be surprised at the cold legal tone.

  • For those left out or who got less than they expected, approach these conversations with compassion and transparency.

When someone you love passes away and leaves behind a will, they typically do so to make sure the people who mean a lot to them are taken care of when they are gone. They also may want to make sure that their loved ones are given keepsakes and other property to remember them by.

These considerations are important to remember when you sit down to discuss the will with everyone who is named in it (and, potentially, those who are left out of it). Particularly if you are the executor of the estate, you hold the responsibility of seeing your loved one’s wishes through and making sure any legal implications are dealt with properly. By choosing to communicate openly with those involved, you can help ease any additional worries and anxieties your family is feeling.

Depending on what is in the will and the relationships between the people involved, conversations about its specifics can be tense and emotional. Regardless of what you think the tenor of these discussions will be, having a strategy in place and all the info you need on hand will be helpful to mitigate conflict and resolve questions.

What you need to tell beneficiaries

Technically, if you’re the executor of the will, you don’t have to discuss the facts with family members and other beneficiaries right away. You can simply file the will and begin the probate process; once you do, the will becomes public record. 

However, this generally isn’t the best approach for creating open communication. You have the opportunity from the very start to establish an expectation that you’ll be openly sharing the details of the will with the people concerned with it. Let them know that you located the will and you’ll be filing it with the probate court. 

At this point, you can also choose to tell them you are named as an executor and what bequests the will gives to which beneficiaries.

Be transparent

The best strategy for dealing with every stage in the execution of the will is maintaining honesty and clear communication. It’s important to make it clear that, while the instructions in the will are what will govern the entire process, there will be specific factors that will determine how they are carried out, such as any debts owed by the estate and the estimated value of all of the assets. You can also let them know if you plan on using professional services like an attorney, financial advisor, appraiser, or estate sale company—and even let them in on the decision to choose those services. 

It will be helpful as well to fill the beneficiaries in on the details of your role as an executor, like the executor fee you will be paid, the decisions you will need to make, and the steps you will be taking to secure assets. For example, if your brother is named as the beneficiary of your loved one’s car, it’s a good idea to let him know that you will be storing the vehicle in a particular place and making loan payments from estate funds until the car can be legally transferred to him.

As time goes on, you can fill your family members in on where you are in the process, when they can expect to receive their portion of any property or assets, and keep them up to date anytime you learn new information. You want to let them in on what’s being considered in the evaluation of the estate (like property values, appraisals, and debts) and timelines. 

Once the will is filed, it’s public record. Anyone who wants to can therefore obtain a copy by themselves, but it can be helpful to spare them the effort and share the contents with them.

Family members and friends are often disappointed to find that a will is a straightforward legal document, and is generally free of any emotional expression.

If you run into a situation where someone feels slighted by the will, this is when they will be able to contest it in court. It will be better for everyone if this does not happen, as it will greatly prolong the process and often causes rifts between family members. This is why talking openly to everyone is an important strategy. Set up a plan for the time when you can distribute the will. Maybe you all want to get together in a neutral setting? More likely, you will want to speak to each of them individually, explain what the provisions of the will mean for them, and discuss next steps.

How to deliver tough news

When you share the will itself, it is a good idea to prepare the beneficiaries for the tone of the document. Family members and friends are often disappointed to find that a will is a straightforward legal document, and is generally free of any emotional expression. Make sure to explain to them that the will is not a letter from their loved one and should not be read as an expression of their feelings. Their intentions will not be delivered through the voice of the will, but through the instructions that it sets out for who will be given which assets.

If the specifics of the will are not what someone expected or not what they wanted to hear, remind them that these were not your decisions, but those outlined by your loved one. No matter what they wrote, you’re legally obligated to follow what is in the will. 

Nevertheless, make sure to approach this conversation with compassion. Both you and they are mourning someone you loved, and emotions run high during this time. Acknowledging at the beginning of the conversation that you know this is not what they hoped for can ameliorate some of the tension up front. If you know this is going to be a difficult conversation, it may be a good idea to invite the person to meet with you in person, or to chat over video, rather than simply a phone call.

What if someone isn’t in the will?

Legally, you don’t have an obligation to have discussions with anyone “left out” of the will. However, if you know that someone is expecting to be a part of these discussions, it’s a good idea to reach out to them and keep them informed about the realities of the situation. 

For one thing, any relative of your loved one who would have inherited if they did not write a will has the legal right to contest the will’s validity in court, which, again, could drag out probate unnecessarily. There may be nothing you can do to prevent this if someone feels completely cheated, but approaching them with transparency and compassion can still be a step toward understanding.

These discussions will often be different from those that you’re having with beneficiaries. Like you, this family member or friend will be grieving, but potentially with added feelings of abandonment or rejection. Talk honestly with them about the process, make it clear that you understand their feelings even though you had no part in the decision and can do nothing to alter it, and offer to lend them an ear if they need support.  

In most cases, discussing the will with the family and other beneficiaries is quite straightforward, as the rules are already laid out for all of you. You can share your love for and memories with your loved one together as another way to honor their legacy. That’s what’s most important during the mourning period—the rest is just stuff.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.