With the end of the year fast approaching, now is the time to fine tune your estate plan before you get caught up in the chaos of the holiday season. One area of planning that many people overlook is ensuring that their final wishes remain private.
Will Your Final Wishes Become a Public Court Record?
Let’s face it, planning for what happens if you become mentally incapacitated or die is an extremely personal matter. Why? Because this type of planning deals with all of the intimate details of your life, including any skeletons in the closet, who you consider to be your real family, what you own, and who you owe.
When you’re sitting across the table from your estate planning attorney, you’ll need to “spill the beans” and let your attorney know your true feelings and ultimate goals. And then once you have done this, there it is – all of the intimate details of your life written down in black and white in your estate planning documents, quite possibly for the whole world to see.
The good news is that because of attorney-client privilege, no one can see your estate planning documents unless you give them permission. But this will only work while you’re alive. After you die and your will is filed for probate, it becomes a public court record that anyone can read (recent celebrity examples include actors James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman). It is also possible for your revocable trust to become a public court record that anyone can read (celebrity examples include Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson).
Or what happens if you don’t have any estate plan at all? NFL quarterback Steve McNair’s public probate court proceedings are a prime example of how the public can learn the dirty little secrets about a deceased person – two illegitimate children and possibly others, multiple girlfriends – and all about the deceased person’s property and its value – cash, investments, businesses, and multiple homes valued near $20 million. If you don't have a personalized estate plan, your family could be stuck with the state's default plan. We've never had a client who wanted their personal plan to be exactly like the state's default plan, so we strongly advise you to meet with an experienced estate planning attorney now to make sure that doesn't happen to your family.
What Can You Do to Keep Your Estate Plan Private?
If privacy and discretion are important to you, then these goals should be, and certainly can be, carried over into your estate plan. The best way to ensure privacy is the use of trust planning.
If you already have an estate plan, check with your estate planning attorney to determine how private your plan will be after you die and make any necessary adjustments.
On the other hand, if you’re currently working on your estate plan, make sure your estate planning attorney is aware of how important privacy and discretion are to you so that these goals can be incorporated into your estate plan from the beginning.