When estate planning, an individual testator may discuss his or her plans with family members or friends who be effected by the plans. Let's face it, if you want your sister to care for your children if something were to happen, she may want to know what kind of responsibility they could be accepting. However, overall your estate plans remain private. That is until you pass away.
Upon death, whether estate details become private or public depends on the type of planning that was done during life. A will must be submitted into probate -- a process that makes the will public record, available to anyone who wants to look. In some rare circumstances, a judge may seal the will upon request.
Joe Paterno's legacy was certainly affected shortly before his death by the allegations and later conviction of his defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. Amidst the media turmoil, Paterno passed away and his family requested that the will be sealed by a judge. Only recently and for unknown reasons, the family withdrew their request and allowed the will to become public.
Requesting that a court seal a will after it has been probated is an option that is available for families, but there are easier ways to make keeping your estate plans private. Using a trust as a part of your plans is one of the best ways to maintain privacy. Trusts created during life avoid probate and the details do not become part of a public record. If you are concerned about privacy, share these concerns with an experienced estate planning attorney.
Source: Forbes, "Joe Paterno's Family Gives Up Trying To Keep His Will Secret," June 19, 2012