By: The American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys

What would you think about your next-door neighbor or your nosy sister-in-law thumbing through the pages of your Will or perusing your financial records? The mere idea probably shocks and outrages you. Maybe it even embarrasses you a little.

Would you be surprised to find out that after you pass away, your Will is filed with your local probate court, and your probate file is open to the public? Anyone who is curious can walk into the courthouse, ask to see your file, and peruse the pages of your Will. In most states, probate files also include an inventory of all the assets controlled by your Will. This means that everyone from nosy neighbors to jealous relatives to telemarketers can find out all kinds of information you might prefer to keep private. For example, your probate file readily reveals:

  • What property you left behind
  • How much your property was worth
  • Who inherited which items of property
  • Which of your family members did not inherit property from you
  • The names of each of your children, including those born outside of marriage

Not only can your probate file be used by scam artists to take advantage of your loved ones at a particularly vulnerable point in their lives, it can also reveal information that is hurtful to family members you’d prefer to protect.

If you are concerned about keeping the details of your estate plan private, a Trust is a better alternative than a Will. Like a Will, you can use a Trust to distribute property to loved ones, friends, and charitable causes after your death. However, with a Trust, you transfer title to the appropriate property to your Trustee while you are still alive. You keep control of the property during your lifetime, and your Trustee is required to follow your written instructions in distributing the property after your death.

Since your Trustee is the legal title holder, Trust property is not subject to Probate at your death. There is no need for a probate file at the courthouse. Instead, your Trustee distributes the property according to your wishes, and the terms of the Trust remain shielded from prying eyes.

The details of your estate plan do not have to be open to the public.

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