Is There Really A "Reading of the Will"?
In old black-and-white movies, particularly those that date from around the 1940’s, there are always scenes of a reading of a will. In those movies, family members gather in a dimly-lit attorney’s office and listen to the attorney as he reads aloud the will of the decedent. The only thing incorrect about those scenes is that they virtually never occur today and, actually, only occasionally occurred in days gone by.
No Requirement Anywhere to Read WillThe truth is that will readings are not required in any state. And it is difficult to find more than a few examples in the past century of a formal will reading. It seems true that in ancient times, Julius Caesar's will was read aloud, but it appears that this was more of a political maneuver than anything else.
What Would Be Wrong With A Will Reading?Movie scenes of a somewhat public reading of a will are dramatic and may help to advance the plot. But there are good reasons why such readings do not actually occur. For one thing, they are potentially very embarrassing to those who may have been disinherited or those who receive far less than might have been expected. In the movies, what made the formal will-readings particularly dramatic was that, quite often, those who most expected to receive sizable bequests typically received nothing, and those who expected nothing quite often received the bulk of the estate. Another reason that militates against a formal will-reading is that, in real life, wills are typically filled with language that most laymen will find obtuse, confusing, and unclear.
Do Will Readings Ever Actually Take Place?I don't claim that will-readings NEVER occur. Even in New York, my research of reported probate-type cases has uncovered three times where will-readings have been done. The most recent one appears to have been in 1993 and another in 1991, and before that there were none referred to in any reported case since 1894. Similarly, other states had similar results - one in Nebraska in 1979, another in California in 1958, and one in Connecticut in 1928. It appears that formal will-readings were, for the most part, the province of the very wealthy. There is some authority to suggest that the probable reason for will-readings is that some very wealthy people, when preparing their wills, envisioned an opportunity, even in death, to show off their wealth.