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How do I know if my relative left a will? And how do I get a copy?

Date:4 AUG 2020

When a person dies, their will can be one of the most important documents they leave behind. It will set out who they appoint as executor to carry out their wishes, and how they want their assets to be distributed. It can also set out some additional directions such as wishes for funeral arrangements or guardianship of minor children. With such important directions given, it is imperative that a person’s last will is located and suitable legal advice obtained in a timely manner.

So how can you find a deceased person’s last will? Usually, a copy of a will would be kept with the person’s important papers, and it is always good practise to inform the executors that they have been chosen and where they can get the will when the time comes. The original will is needed to apply for grants of probate and to give directions to some financial institutions.

If a copy of the will can be found, it will usually have the details of the law firm or will drafters who prepared the document – these can be found on the cover page or in the addresses of the witnesses to the will. The firm that prepared the will often retain the original signed document, or may keep a record of where the original was sent.

If you can’t find a copy, then contacting the law firm that acted for the deceased is the best starting point. This may be a law firm that has acted for them in purchasing of property, family law cases or business advice. If you don’t know of any law firm or will drafter that acted for the deceased, then you can try contacting the bank, as some still retain documents for customers. Certainty’s National Will Register also has useful search mechanisms. If the will made was registered, then for a fee you can have the register searched and/or a notice placed for all affiliated will writers that a search is being conducted for that deceased person.

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If the above searches are not fruitful, but you think there is an executor or law firm that will act on the estate – then placing a standing search with the probate registry is a good alternative. In England and Wales there is no individual that has an entitlement to see a will except for the executors, until it becomes a public document either by probate being granted or a court claim being issued. A standing search with the probate registry will notify you if probate has been granted within six months of the search being placed and you will be sent a copy of the grant and will at that time. You can read more about standing searches here.

Obtaining early legal advice can assist you in making sure you locate a will as soon as possible and know how to administer the estate. It is also vital in circumstances where there is the potential for a dispute over the validity of a will or about the inheritance received by certain beneficiaries.

If you require advice about finding a will or how to deal with a potential dispute, contact one of the members of our contentious probate team.

If you are considering where to store your own will, you can read a further log article on the topic here.

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