First, what do I do? I specialize in trusts and estates, which means we do estate planning (drafting wills, trusts, end of life documents, etc), and administration (trust administration, probate, after-death planning). This means I’m really good at my area of laws (trusts, estates, and to some extent, taxes) and know very little about the others.
Also, I shouldn’t have to do this, but I’m a lawyer, and we’re all about covering our asses:
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A lot of my clients are really worried about privacy. For some, it’s a matter of not wanting their kids to know what they decided to do with their estate until after they’re gone (what do you mean you donated it all to a religious organization so they could buy land in Bali?), for some it’s that they don’t want their kids to know exactly how much they’re going to get, and for some they just plain don’t want anyone snooping into their business.
Whatever the reason, I spend a lot of time either talking about privacy or discussing it. So here’s some tidbits on the privacy front for you:
1. Anything you file with a court becomes public record, unless there are specific rules about keeping documents confidential. In other words, there’s no secrets any more.
You might not think this is applicable, but when you undertake a probate, everything gets filed with the Court. Everything. Even a list of your assets. Even if you don’t have a probate, in California if you possess an original will of a deceased person, you are under a legal obligation to lodge that will with the Court. Which then becomes public record. So your business might wind up there even if you’ve done your best to hide everything away.
Obviously, a lot of people are unaware of that law and don’t lodge the wills with the Courts (not to mention they charge you money for the privilege of obeying the law).
But that’s actually why a lot of Californians have revocable trusts (well, that and a host of other reasons). They still have a will that gets lodged, but it doesn’t say anything about their estate or their disposition other than giving everything to their Trust. Yay for privacy.
An interesting factoid that I occasionally ponder as a story prompt is the fact that, at least around here, if there’s a suicide, and a note is found, that note is not only considered evidence for the investigation, but might also be considered a last will, depending on its contents. AND, in several recent cases I’ve worked on, the police themselves have lodged it with the Court so that there can be no destruction of evidence and no one can later state there wasn’t anything in the note of dispositive value.
So anyone with a death certificate (which are relatively easy to get, particularly for people you’re related to), you can walk in and get a copy of anyone’s will. Including suicide notes.
2. Death certificates contain a crapload of information.
I’m nosy by nature and love looking at death certificates. Obviously, the most interesting item is cause of death. But there’s a wealth of other information, including occupation, social security number, military service, date and place of birth, as well as family names.
And while there are hoops to jump through and fees to pay, you can get a copy without too much hassle. You just have to know where and when they died.
3. Your beneficiaries are entitled to a copy of the terms of your trust and will. And not just that, but so are your disinherited heirs.
So if you disinherit someone who would normally inherit from you if you had no estate plan, they get a copy of the document that basically tells them to go screw themselves. And they get to see just how much everyone else is getting instead of them.
This is another reason the whole “reading of the will” schtick is a load of crap – they all get copies, generally. So don’t write situation where the angry disinherited child has no idea what’s going on. Because I’m required by law to serve that angry person and then, often, take the extremely disgruntled phone calls about how much their parents sucked.
To be continued….