Jaclyn’s sister Mary had just passed away, and Jaclyn was struggling to understand her late sister’s records and accounts. Although Mary had been well off, she had never put a will or other estate plan in place. With a mountain of paper surrounding her on the kitchen table, Jaclyn wondered how much of it would become public.
The general rule is that probate records, like other court records, are public.
Probate begins with the filing of a petition with the probate court, either to have the will admitted or to have a representative appointed to administer the estate of someone who died without a will. Other proceedings in the probate court may follow. The probate process also involves publishing a legal notice to the creditors of the person who died.
The documents filed with the probate court, the court orders, and the notice to creditors all will be public.
Because probate records are public, it is important for the executor or representative of the estate to be aware of the potential for people trying to exploit the probate process for their own benefit. Communications related to the estate or its assets, or the probate process itself, should be evaluated with caution.
The public nature of such proceedings and the cost and time they can take are reasons people prefer to avoid probate proceedings. However, there are only a few ways to do so.
One way to ensure that one’s own estate will not be subject to probate proceedings is to establish an estate plan with a trust or other mechanisms to ensure that the assets will be transferred at death to the beneficiaries. With proper planning, one can avoid exposing the assets to undue risk, which can sometimes occur with joint tenancy. With a trust, the beneficiaries will enjoy a seamless transition and privacy not possible with a probate case.
Mary could have done this for Jaclyn, saving her time and stress, and possibly a lot of expenses too. Estate planning has the potential to do so for families everywhere.