Most people think of estate planning as a private matter involving family and loved ones. However, if your estate has to go through the probate process you should be aware your probate records will be publicly available for anybody to see. This means the assets and other details listed in your will become public record after your death.
Wills in the public record
Your will is completely private until it is filed in probate court where it does become publicly available. Probate is the legal process for determining how the assets of your estate are to be distributed to beneficiaries, creditors and to pay any taxes owed. Of course, your will is not entered into probate until after you have passed away.
On the other hand, if you pass away without having a will or estate plan in place the court then distributes the assets in your estate in accordance with intestate succession laws. The documents related to this process will become a part of the probate record which is available to be viewed by the public.
How can somebody access probate records?
Anybody has the ability to view documents in the records of a probate case once it has been filed with the probate court. A person can view your probate record by reaching out to the local probate court which is processing the case. In some jurisdictions the probate court records are stored in digital form which means your probate record can easily be found online.
On the other hand, there are many counties that have yet to start utilizing digital records. In these cases, a person would have to physically visit the courthouse. It may also be possible to have a copy of a probate record sent by mail or fax.
In some cases, a probate court may offer online access to probate records but only a portion of the case file will be visible online. Many times, only a summary of the probate case is available via the internet. In this situation a person would have to call or visit the courthouse to obtain the full probate records.
Most of the time a person would need your first and last name and the date of your death in order to obtain your probate record. Paying a small fee to the court may be required to obtain the relevant documents or to receive copies of the probate records.
How to keep probate records private
There really is not much you can do to keep information private once an estate enters the probate process. It is possible the judge may find a compelling reason to seal the probate record, but usually there is almost no chance of this happening. Therefore, if you are concerned about privacy, the best strategy would be to avoid the need for your estate to enter probate in the first place.
There are various strategies you can employ when designing your estate plan which may help to avoid probate. Your financial advisor may be able to assist you in creating an estate plan that may allow your family and loved ones to avoid this potentially messy legal process.