Is a will a public document?

Only your executor has the legal right to see your will when you die, unless they need probate to handle your estate. Then, the final version becomes a public document. You can keep some wishes private by writing them in a separate letter.

This guide explains when your will can become public, and what to do if you want to keep some of your wishes private.

Who has the right to see a will?

When someone dies, the executor is the only person entitled to see and read their will

The executor is the person named in the will to take care of handling the estate of the person who died. They do not have to share the will with anyone else. 

Often executors do share it with family members or friends - to help everyone understand the contents.

‘Estate’ means anything you own when you die

It’s usually things like property, vehicles, savings and shares. Technically it means the sum of all these things minus any liabilities or debts.

Nobody else has the right to see the will, not even those who you name as beneficiaries (people who inherit money or belongings). 

However, if the will goes through the probate process, the final, valid version of it enters the probate records for England and Wales. Then the public can apply to see a copy, for a small charge. 

Probate is a legal process that’s necessary after around 50% of deaths in the UK 

A document called a grant of probate shows banks, the Land Registry and other organisations that someone has the right to deal with your estate. 

Probate is usually needed when:

  • the total value of your estate is worth more than £10,000;

  • your estate includes a number of solely owned assets - things you own by yourself, rather than co-own with other people.

In cases where the estate is small or you mostly own assets with another person or people, it’s unlikely probate will be necessary.

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You cannot arrange probate yourself before you die

Some people wonder whether they can help with the arrangements for their own probate before they die - but this is not possible. 

In order to get probate, and work out the correct amount of inheritance tax to pay, your executors will need to value your estate at the date of your death. This valuation cannot happen in advance.

Inheritance tax is a tax on the estate of someone who’s died

There’s normally no tax to pay if the value of your estate is below the £325,000 threshold, or you leave everything above the threshold to your spouse, civil partner or a charity. If you leave your home to your children (including adopted, foster or stepchildren) or grandchildren your threshold can increase to £500,000.

There are things you can do to make the process easier for your executor

It’s helpful to make a list of your assets and liabilities, and store this with your will. Your list could include:

  • all the places where you have bank accounts, pensions and life insurance policies;

  • everywhere you owe money, including mortgages, credit cards and loans;

  • details of all the utility accounts for your property;

  • details of your standing orders and direct debits; and

  • details of any lifetime gifts that you’ve made to people in the last seven years.

Whoever you appoint as your executor - and it can be family, a friend or a business such as a bank - you’ll need to tell them where to find your will or who to contact to get it. This will help them when they’re sorting out the paperwork to apply for probate.

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Why does probate make a will public?

When your executor applies for probate, they have to send your will to the Probate Registry 

Your will becomes part of the public probate records for England and Wales. (There’s a different process for Scotland and Northern Ireland.)

This is a database where the public can search for records, check if the registry has granted probate, and order a copy of a record including a will, if there is one. 

It’s likely to be only the latest, most up-to-date will that the Probate Registry adds to its records. When someone makes a new will, they usually add a clause at the top to say they’re revoking (cancelling) all previous wills. If that clause is not there, the Probate Registry lodges any old wills alongside the newer one.

How do the public get a copy of a will?

There’s a government service for ordering copies of a probate record 

Anyone can order a copy of a probate record by searching the records for England and Wales. Each copy of a probate record costs £1.50. 

The records are in two searchable sections: 1858-1996, and 1996 onwards. For the earlier records, the government lists probate by the date it’s granted, rather than the year someone dies. From 1996 onwards you search for results by the date of death.

Not all probate records contain a will, but many do. If any of the following terms are on the record, it does include a will:

  • ‘Probate’ or ‘Grant and Will’

  • ‘Admon with Will’ or ‘Grant and Will’

If a record says ‘Administration (Admon) or Grant’, it does not contain a will.

It’s also possible to find a probate record and will by sending in the PA1S form. It costs £1.50 for a postal search which includes a copy of the probate record and will if there is one. You can expect a response within four weeks.

Can you keep any information private?

The public can see anything that’s in the final, valid will that enters the public record 

If there’s something you’d like to write down to make your wishes clear but you’d rather it stayed private, you can keep it out of your will and write a separate letter of wishes. 

You can include anything you like in a letter, but you’ll need to make sure it does not go against what you say in your will. It should be a helpful additional document to guide your executor and family to carry out your wishes and administer your estate.

A letter of wishes is only for those you address it to 

It will not become public after you die, even if your executor applies for probate. It does not form part of the public probate record. 

What you write in it will not be legally binding but it can be a good place to express wishes that you only want your executor or a few close relatives to see, such as:

  • Who to tell, or not tell, about your death

  • Farewell messages to family and friends

  • Instructions for your funeral, such as whether you’d prefer a burial or a cremation, or music choices for the service

  • Reasons certain people are or are not inheriting from the estate, if you feel there may be conflict or disagreements

  • Wishes for how to raise your children, such as their education and faith

  • Reasons for choosing a charity to leave money to, which may be personal and related to physical or mental health, or life experiences

  • Instructions for who should take over and shut down social media accounts

You should sign and date your letter but you do not need anyone to witness it as it’s not a legal document. It can be helpful to keep it stored with your will, so that it’s easy to find after your death. 

It’s a good idea to express your funeral wishes separately from your will

Some people like to include their funeral wishes in their will, and this is perfectly OK to do. But your family may want to start making arrangements before they can see your will. 

If it’s possible, talk to your relatives in advance to let them know your wishes, and give them the instructions written down. This way they can start putting your funeral wishes into action without worrying if it takes time to read the will.

Arrange a direct cremation

If you’d prefer to arrange a direct cremation, you can have a memorial at any time, anywhere you wish, perhaps at home or your loved one’s favourite pub.

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