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Who has rights to a copy of a decedent's will?

Trust, but verify. That's an adage that comes to us from Russia. Ronald Reagan made it famous during his presidency, using it often in connection with nuclear disarmament talks.

When it comes to the disposition of wills and other elements of a New York estate plan, it might be understandable for members of a decedent's family to want to apply the same wisdom to be sure that asset distribution goes according to the creator's wishes. The easiest way to achieve this might be for the executor to simply distribute copies of the documents. Whether that happens or not depends on a number of factors.

New York law does require that the administrator of an estate notify any beneficiary named in a will when the will is submitted for probate. Included on that list is supposed to be anyone who might benefit from the estate if no will existed. In the hierarchy of succession in New York, that would mean the spouse, any descendants, and parents and siblings of the deceased if there is no spouse or descendants.

However, providing a copy of the will as part of notification is not a requirement. One main reason why is because of probate proceedings. When a will exists and the estate is valued at more than $30,000, the law requires the executor to submit the document to Surrogate's Court in the county where the decedent lived. The rules also require that it be the original, not a copy.

When probate occurs, the court oversees the distribution to beneficiaries after any debts have been paid. Upon completion of the probate process, the will becomes a matter of public record, and then any interested individual can obtain a copy of the document.

There might be instances in which an executor fails to submit a will for required probate. When that happens, it's time to consult an attorney to determine if there's value in going to court to force compliance.

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