How public are Wills?

Bear with me on this, k?

I recently found out that one of my cousins is very likely my half-brother (we share a dad). I don’t know if he knows, I don’t know if the man who raised him knows, and I’m not about to go making waves. Unless I am approached by him about it, I’m probably going to just lay low.

He’s met me about twice, barely knows me. This whole side of the family barely knows me.

That said – he’s probably my brother, which, having been an only child my whole life, is a big deal to me.

Now let’s get hypothetical …

Suppose I have a lot of money that’s gotta be divvied up when I die, and I make out my Will and I decide that I want to kick a little cash toward this guy.

In the Will I say something to the effect of “to Panda Cousin, who I have reason to believe is my half brother, I bequeath $50,000.” (I would write this because I’m a genealogist and this is just too important of a detail to leave out IMO – 200 years from now one of my descendants might read my Will and go “oooh so that’s why she left him money” or something.)

So he gets a random phone call that I’ve died and oh, by the way, he’s now 50k richer. This would naturally come as a shock considering he knows me as his cousin and BARELY knows me at that. As welcome as the windfall would be, I’m sure he’d wonder why I left him some cash, considering I’m a virtual stranger and also have tons of other cousins on that side of the family that I barely know.

Would he have the right to read my Will since he’s mentioned in it? Can Wills be kept secret even after they’re executed?

Irrelevant, of course, considering the only cash that’s gonna be shelled out when I die is my life insurance which goes to PandaKid, but I was still curious …

Your will is submitted to probate court when you kick the bucket. Probate proceedings are a matter of public record. (They have to be, in case anyone wants to show up to challenge the validity of the will.)

There are ways to keep things out of probate, such as by setting up a trust, but that would require the involvement of the cousin who would be a trustee with right of survivorship.

Why put that detail in the will? you can leave whatever you want to whomever you want, and it’s entirely up to you. Leave a letter with the will for (a) your lawyer in case closer relatives contest it and (b) for him, explaining the situation.

A lawyer will allow you to write the will in such a way that it is less likely to be overturned.

Hypothetical: If Cousin Suzy decides she wants the money and she is closer family, she could contest it. She goes to court, gets a DNA test on him, and ta-da he’s not your brother; but the will says “to my brother” so it’s overturned…? All he gets out of it is knowing his mother slept around…

So what do you want - leave the guy the money regardless? Is it necessary to tell anyone except him? That’s why there are wills, to decide these questions while you are sound of mind and body.


Popping in here to second this–and not just because I’m a lawyer and I want my comrade lawyers to get nice fees. Probate law is remarkably technical and, for lack of a better word, delicate. (In my opinion, it’s also archaic and paternalistic, but that’s probably for GD.) A well-educated layman drafting his own will in accordance with his wishes, as guided by common sense, will almost certainly cock it up. You really ***need ***a lawyer in this area as in few others, both to make sure that you comply with the formalities and to make sure that your will has the least likelihood of being successfully challenged.

Oh, I’m not going to write my own Will – I looked it up and holographic wills are legal in my state but the law is very picky. (Unlike my home state of Kentucky, where pretty much anything goes.)

So when I get around to it, I’ll have an attorney do it.

And like I said, it’s all hypothetical anyway. If I were to ever leave the guy anything it’d be as a beneficiary of my life insurance, and a small slice at that – that way there’s no 'splainin to do.

Don’t know what you mean by “executed.” A document purporting to be a will is not a will until it is admitted to probate and proved up to be the L W & T of the deceased. So, when it is probated, it’s a matter of public record. Until the person dies, any such document can, of course, be destroyed, amended, etc. If the decedent leaves a “will” but his estate is not probated, he dies intestate until such time, if any, that the estate is probated.