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Are Wills private?

The announcement at the end of last year that an archive of 41 million Wills dating back to 1858 is now available to search online was no doubt greeted with enthusiasm by genealogists and those researching their family tree. However, in the comments on the project some surprise was expressed that Wills should be freely available for all and sundry to view.

Many people clearly felt that a Will is always a private document. During a testator’s lifetime this is the case; while the person making the Will is still alive, knowledge of its contents will be limited to the testator and his advisers. There are occasions when we would recommend that a Will’s contents are shared with a testator’s family, usually when its provisions are controversial in some way, but this would only occur if the testator chose to tell those affected.

A Will remains private until it is admitted to Probate and at that point it becomes a public document. As such, from the time Probate is granted, it has always been possible for someone to obtain a copy of a person’s Will by applying to the Probate Registry.

You may like to bear this fact in mind when making a Will. If for example you leave someone a legacy and later change your mind, you might feel that it would be better to make a new Will rather than a codicil where the change in your wishes would be obvious to everyone.

Another way to keep part of your wishes private is to include gifts to trusts in your Will or gifts by reference to a memorandum, a device that is frequently used for the distribution of personal effects such as furniture and jewellery. The general rule is, however, that anyone can access details of your last bequests.