U.S. Will Registry Reduces Probate Headaches and More

Once a decedent’s assets are distributed incorrectly, it’s usually too late to do anything about it.

By Eleanor O'Sullivan

In the 25 years since the U.S. Will Registry was founded, its executive director and founder Stacey Miller has heard plenty of sob stories and horror tales caused by a lost or outdated will, ranging from squabbles about a prized Rolex watch or the necklace that Mother wore every day, to a permanent family breach over a piece of silver.

“Can you imagine? A serving spoon? But, it was their mother’s favorite and they all wanted it,’’ said Miller.

Even a family with relatives who practice law, such as Miller’s, can suffer from an errant will. Her father and uncle were probate judges.

“When we talked about situations with estates and probates, the issue that always came up was not being able to locate a will and what that did to families. So, it is ironic that when my father died, in 1996, we couldn’t find his will! This caused a lot of family dissension.

“With my father, his assets were distributed among the family (not through the probate court), but not as he intended, as we found out one-and-a-half years later when we found the will. By then it was too late,’’ Miller said.

That inspired Miller, in 1997, with the bright idea to provide online registration for wills, her thought being that a quick and easy national registry locator would bring peace of mind to those left behind.

Lawyers gave the thumbs up

She brainstormed the idea with attorneys, the American Bar Association and estate planning groups’ lawyers who gave her support and guidance. When she asked them what they thought of a national registry, Miller said, “They thought it was brilliant, something that families (and attorneys) desperately needed.”

The lawyers were on the receiving end of the misunderstandings and panic over a missing will, Miller said.

“Too often, family members go to bar associations and attorneys pleading for a source to locate a missing will, and they were helpless. Now they have a source to refer to.’’

The problem of missing or outdated wills is sizable: Miller said her organization surveyed lawyers, who said 76% of wills are not found. Her father’s will was found in a strongbox 18 months after his death.

The U.S. Will Registry has more than three million registrations in its database, all searchable by the public and attorneys, Miller said.

The Registry receives about 4,500 to 7,000 registrations a month, and between 1,000 and 1,200 searches for a missing will in a month.

Perhaps users are drawn to the catchy slogan at the top of the Registry’s website: “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way, for Those Left Behind, to Find Peace of Mind.’’

One of a kind

Miller said the Registry is the only centralized, national will registry in the United States. It can locate a will or a duplicate of a will held with a lawyer, in a home, in an institution, by a private party, and, in the future, through iCloud.

Only the original and duplicate locations are mandatory when registering a will online, and at least one member, typically a beneficiary, will have permission to view the registration, Miller said.

The registration form also requires that registrants list which persons have permission to access the registration after the registrant’s death. After death, a death certificate and ID of those requesting registration information must be provided prior to the Registry’s legal department releasing the records.

A living trust can also be registered with the Registry, as well as information on will substitutes, such as life insurance, annuities, retirement, and accounts designated as payable on death (POD), transfer on death (TOD) and in trust for (ITF).

No registration charge

There is no charge to register, which enables the user to document the location of the will and who will be allowed to have access to the registration.

“When the time comes, the Registry knows whom we can release that information to. If they do a search for the will, if it’s a match and we have it registered, they have to provide ID and a death certificate.  At that point, we will give the registration’s contents to the lawyer, and the lawyer releases the contents.’’

A driver’s license, passport or government ID are accepted, and when the contents are released to the lawyer, the lawyer must verify that the IDs match the person they are representing.

The lawyer’s name is listed only if there was a lawyer who wrote the will. Miller said that many people who have a simple estate have their wills written online, as well.

It costs $14.95 to search the database for a will, and that buys three separate searches. Searching can be done by name and birthdate.  Sensitive information such as Social Security numbers are not required for a search. The search will say where the original and/or duplicate is located.

How financial advisors can help

All of this legwork underscores the need to have a will properly executed and its location known to parties of choice. Miller said this is where a financial advisor comes in.

“The advisor should tell clients, whatever they do, to make sure they register their will, so the family has a basis to find it when you are not around. Even if the original is not there, at least they will have a duplicate.

Additional Reading: The Problems With Advisors Being Trustees

“It’s especially important with clients of financial advisors, because the chances are they have more assets than the average person. It speeds up the process and keeps the family and loved ones from getting disconnected.’’

“When we first started, people were curious about how many registrations there would be or how long we would be around. But when the (American) Bar Association said, ‘You’ve been around long enough,’ that gave us credibility. We’re not going anywhere,’’ Miller said.

After registering one’s will online, the Registry emails the client a certificate.

“We say in the email to please share this with your family. Some people don’t want to say where their will is because they don’t want it to disappear before its time. But when it’s registered if you need to find it, it’s in Find a Missing Will in the registry. Access is not available until the person dies.’’

If a match is found through Find a Missing Will, and necessary paperwork and IDs are in order, the Registry provides registration information to the lawyer provided by the family.

One 1% of people file a will

Although there is no national registry, some states do allow a person who has written a will to register the document or information about it. For example, in New Jersey , a resident who has written a will can file a form with information about the will with the N.J. Secretary of State. Other states, like Massachusetts and New Mexico,  allow residents to file the actual will for safekeeping with a court.

Miller said her experience has shown that “99% of people are not filing a will in county court. They are not filing a will, period. They are keeping it at home, or with a lawyer but they are not taking it to the courthouse and filing it there. Very few courthouses have storage for wills.’’

If a person dies without a will or trust and all assets are in their name only, probate is required. Probate lasts between six to 12 months, Miller said, and all assets, such as bank accounts, real estate, vehicles and personal property must pass through probate court if no beneficiary or joint owner is named.

Miller said that judges handling probate of a will do accept a duplicate.

No security breaches to date

Changes since the Registry began include the increased digitation of material. In the future, the Registry will be partnering with an online digital storage company that will give people the option to store a will’s duplicate online.

A survey taken of about 2,000 people by the Registry found that most respondents said the farthest back their current wills went was 1967, which is the farthest back the Registry can locate a will.

Miller said there have been no security breaches in the 25 years that the Registry has operated.

“The information is so general and already in the public domain; you can look up anybody’s birthday and name and address. There is a firewall and a backup system and copies are not housed on the site,’’ Miller said.

Common mistakes

Thinking you’re too young or lack the assets to have a will and to make its location known — or assuming your family will know your final wishes — are common mistakes people make, says Miller.

“Too many people think the family will know what they want done. The biggest mistake is, ‘My kids will know what to do.’ That is a lie! I’ve never had a group I’ve spoken to not crack up when I say, ‘How many people here think that their kids will know what do to and what you want?’ ‘’

The reality is this, according to the U.S. Will Registry:

“If a will is lost, beneficiaries may not receive their inheritance as per your wishes and in accordance with your instructions. Courts distribute your assets under the ‘Rules of Intestacy.’ Also, your will may be found only after your estate has been distributed and signed off on by the authorities. This leads to family disputes, where children and dependents may not be looked after in the way you have stated in your will. The worst-case scenario is that it is assumed that you never wrote a will in the first place.”

Miller said the Registry helps the Alzheimer’s Association, The American Seniors Association and the National Council on Aging raise awareness of these issues.

In a four-decade career in journalism, Eleanor O’Sullivan has reviewed many books on best practices for financial advisors, has written for Financial Advisor and the USA Today network, and was movie critic for the Asbury Park Press.

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