How Do I Find Out if I am the Beneficiary in a California Will?

The death of a loved one is always a trying and emotionally devastating time. Perhaps your loved one who passed away told you that you would be receiving something in his or her will. You may be trying to find out information about your loved one’s will, only to be shut off by the family member who has the will in his or her possession. How can you see a copy of the will to find out if you are a beneficiary? 

As with many legal questions, the answer is not straightforward. You should be able to go to the court in the county where your loved one lived when they passed away and ask for a copy of the will. After a death, the will must be lodged with a probate court as required by California law. The person in physical possession of the will must file it with the probate court within 30 days of learning of the testator’s death. 

Unfortunately, people don’t always lodge a will with the court, even though it is required. Obtaining a copy of your loved ones’ trust shouldn’t be difficult if you are an “heir at law”, meaning you would inherit under California’s intestate laws. However, obtaining a copy of the will or trust of your deceased family member can be difficult.


What Happens After Someone Files a Petition Seeking to Open Probate?

The first step in the probate process involves filing a petition in a probate court to open probate for the “decedent” (the legal term for the person who passed away). Many people choose to create a trust-based estate plan these days, so their assets pass outside of the probate process. However, if your loved one did have a last will and testament, it will need to be lodged with a probate court. As a practical matter, not everyone lodges the will with the probate court, making it difficult for people who have a legal right to obtain a copy of the will from the court to get one.


The Legal Rights of Heirs-At-Law in California

Under California law, everyone who would be an heir at law of the decedent is entitled to certain information, including a copy of the will and trust. As mentioned above, an heir at law is someone who would inherit under California law if the decedent did not have a will or trust in place when he or she died. 

Under California intestacy laws, the surviving spouse and children inherit the decedent’s property. If there is no surviving spouse or children, then the parents or other family members will inherit the estate assets. In other words, if you are an heir under California intestacy laws, you have a right to certain information. What can you do to obtain the information to which you are entitled?


Filing a Petition With the Court to Obtain a Copy of the Trust and Will

You will have no idea what your rights are as a beneficiary until you see a copy of the will or trust. The sooner you begin the process, the better. We recommend consulting with an estate litigation lawyer. Your lawyer can help you send the estate representative a written demand letter. 

In the demand letter, you can demand to see the will and find out whether you are a beneficiary. Maintaining proof that you sent a demand letter requesting information will help you with any future legal claims. If the estate representative refuses to let you see the will, you can file a petition in court for a court order forcing the representative to give you a copy of the will.

If you are an heir at law, you must enforce your rights in a probate court. You will need to file a petition with the probate court executing the deceased’s will and for an order to compel a copy of the trust and will to be given to you. Most probate courts will grant this type of petition. You will be able to obtain a copy of the trust and will this way, but it does take time to do so. Even though you have rights to certain information, you must ask the court to give you the information. Unfortunately, probate courts are backed up, and the request may take some time to be fulfilled.


Obtaining a Copy of the Trust

Obtaining a copy of a trust is even more challenging because there is no requirement for a trustee or beneficiary to lodge a trust agreement with a probate court. Trusts are intended to be private legal documents, making it even more challenging to obtain information about the trust agreement. A trust is a different type of legal document than a will. The settlor is the person who created the trust, the trustee manages the trust, and the beneficiary or beneficiaries receive the assets in the trust.

Under California law, a trustee must notify beneficiaries of the trust after the settlor’s death. The trustee must send notice within 60 days of the settlor’s death to the beneficiaries. The notice needs to contain the following information:

  • The settlor’s identity
  • The date of the trust was formed
  • The name, address, and telephone number of the trustee
  • The physical location where the trust is administered
  • Any other information that the trust requires the trustee to give the beneficiaries
  • Notification that the beneficiary is entitled to a complete copy of the trust agreement after making a reasonable request to the trustee

Should the trustee refuse to give you a copy of the trust agreement, or you believe the copy you received is not accurate or complete, we recommend speaking with an attorney as soon as possible. You typically only have 120 days from the date of the notification from the trustee to contest the trust.


Contact a Sacramento Estate Planning Lawyer Today

The death of a loved one is a stressful time. Unfortunately, coping with a loved one’s death is often even more frustrating when the estate representative or trustee will not provide you with the information you need. Suppose you are wondering whether you are a beneficiary and unable to access information about the will or trust agreement. In that case, the experienced estate litigation lawyers at the Law Office of Daniel Hunt are here to help. Contact us today to schedule your free initial consultation.

Law Offices of Daniel A. Hunt

The Law Offices of Daniel A. Hunt is a California law firm specializing in Estate Planning; Trust Administration & Litigation; Probate; and Conservatorships. We've helped over 10,000 clients find peace of mind. We serve clients throughout the greater Sacramento region and the state of California.