Does the probate of a will always mean an invasion of privacy?

By default, a probate is a public proceeding. However, a recent story illustrates that creative approaches can be taken even when a will is involved.

Specifically, the personal administrator of Harper Lee's estate recently made a successful request to seal the author's will. Ms. Lee is best known as the author of "To Kill a Mockingbird." In the request made to the court, the administrator, who is also Ms. Lee's attorney, noted that Ms. Lee was highly private during her life, and that she would not have wanted her financial affairs to become a matter of public record.

The court granted the request, noting that Ms. Lee's heirs might be subjected to public harassment and/or intrusion without the extra privacy measure. Although the will and accompanying file are now sealed, the will must still go through a normal probate process. That means a probate notice published in the local paper and a six-month period for creditors to make claims against the estate.

Admittedly, the standard for sealing a public record is high, usually requiring the requesting party to show a threat of harassment, physical intrusion, exploitation or other harm. However, there are other approaches that an individual can take to safeguard his or her privacy when crafting an estate plan. The most obvious approach is to minimize one's probate property.

Working to prevent disputes among creditors and heirs can also be a valid planning strategy. An accounting of one's finances, including a credit report analysis, may help avoid unexpected surprises. Transfers made during one's life to trusts or specific gift beneficiaries may also minimize disputes after one has passed among his or her heirs.

Source: Associated Press, "Alabama judge seals Harper Lee will," Kim Chandler, March 7, 2016


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