26th Jan 2024
This is a series celebrating the unexpected legal issues that come up while watching everyone’s favorite talking Great Dane – Scooby-Doo. I grew up watching these shows as a kid. Watching them back with my my kids as an attorney often adds another layer of enjoyment. If you have questions about estates and related issues in Oklahoma. Or you just wanna talk some Scooby-Doo. Reach out to me directly: CoryHicks@FieldAndHicks.com
Background for this Issue
In Season 1, Episode 16 “A Night of Fright is No Delight” of Scooby-Doo Where, Where Are You!, the “eccentric millionaire” Colonel Beauregard Sanders has died. As the episode opens, Velma reads aloud in the newspaper that the decedent left One Million Dollars to four relatives and a dog named Scooby-Doo in his Last Will and Testament. The decedent put Scooby-Doo in his Will because Scooby-Doo had saved his life previously. The Mystery Inc. gang is heading on a boat on a stormy night to the decedent’s creepy castle to hear the the “Reading of the Will.”
Issue: The “Reading of the Will”
This is a very common phrase. It is often assumed that when someone dies, those left behind gather together in one place and an attorney or someone “reads” the Last Will and Testament of the decedent aloud. And the property is generally handed out / passed down at that moment. This is a common high-drama scene in movies, cartoons, books, commercials, and other other art and media.
There is Generally No “Reading of the Will”
There is no requirement under Oklahoma law that a Will be “read” – or that it be read in any particular place or manner. And it is not a common event.
I have on occasion, under the right circumstances, met with a larger group in one place and discussed the contents of a Will. But even then, it is not generally read word for word.
And even if it happens, the reading of the Will does not distribute the property. In fact, a reading of the Will does not have any legal effect at all.
What Happens Instead of a “Reading of the Will”
In sum, the modern estate or probate process.
A Will should name a Personal Representative (sometimes more generally called an Executor or Administrator or other related term) to basically take the lead in handling the decedent’s affairs and distributing their property. That person generally needs a lawyer. And they will submit the Will to a proceeding called an estate or probate. A Court will determine the Will is valid (or not). And make sure the most recent Will is used and any later changes are known.
There are several lessons to think through in light of this.
Lesson One: If You Are Named to Serve in a Will
If you are named to serve as Personal Representative in a Will, upon the maker’s death, you need to seek experienced, competent counsel for many reasons. One is that the law will impose on you certain duties you owe to the estate and likely others; and, if you do not follow those, you can find yourself in trouble. Another is that there are certain details in the estate process – from timing of hearings to descriptions of real property – that are very easy to get wrong if you do not work with an experienced, competent attorney.
Lesson Two: Who Gets to See the Will & Due Process
Everyone who is a close relative of the decedent (heirs) will be mailed a copy of the Will. Everyone named in the Will as beneficiaries (devisees and legatees) will be mailed a copy of the Will.
Further, those two groups – heirs plus devisees and legatees – will received a notice of the time and place of the hearing where the Judge will examine the Will. The notice will often publish in a newspaper to make a wider audience aware of the proceeding.
This allows anyone who has a later Will or later changes (Codicil) to bring them forward. This allows anyone to challenge an invalid Will (on grounds such as incapacity of the maker, undue influence, fraud, etc.). This allows anyone to challenge the appointment of the Personal Representative named in the Will, if there are good reasons under the law that they should not serve.
Estates and the probate and administration processes often get a bad rap. But these processes exist so that things get done correctly and those involved know what is going on. This is generally called “due process” and is one of the best things about the American legal system, even with its flaws and downsides.