Dear Liza: My wife’s Aunt just died. We went to the funeral because they had been rather close and she wanted to represent her mother’s side of the family. While attending there was a passing reference to how she and some other members of her family were in the Will. What should we expect at this point? Whose obligation is it to notify us? Do we have specific rights in this matter? I’m sorry to hear about your Wife’s Aunt. And all of the questions you are asking are such good ones! Rules vary a bit state to state, but the general idea is that the person who has custody of the Will is required to lodge that Will with the probate court in the county where your Wife’s Aunt lived. In California, where I practice, this is supposed to be done within 30 days of the death. Once the Will is lodged (which means filed with the court), it is a public document, so you, your Wife, and anyone else can get access to it.
If your Wife’s Aunt had sufficient assets to require a probate proceeding, again this amount varies from state to state, the executor named in the Will would petition the court to open a probate proceeding. This will require publication in a newspaper in the town the Aunt lived in — the idea is that probate is a public proceeding and publication gives notice to creditors who may want to file a claim against the estate. Also, all of the Aunt’s heirs and beneficiaries would be notified of the probate, and, if anyone objects to the appointment of the executor or the validity of the Will, they can file their objections with the court.
If the Aunt’s assets fell below the limit for a probate proceeding, and here’s a list of the limits for various states, then no probate proceeding needs to be opened, but the Will should still be filed.