Minimizing the Private Information Revealed in Probate Documents and Probate Proceedings

Personal and financial records are among the few things people generally prefer to keep private. In the past, people may have gone so far as to bury the documents. Nowadays, people might keep them under lock and key in their homes. Some might leave them with financial advisors, accountants, or attorneys, and others might keep them in safety deposit boxes. Admittedly, although we have come quite a way from the days of burying documents in the backyard, today’s precautions nonetheless still reflect society’s desire to keep personal and financial information private. Unfortunately, upon death, beloved family members named as beneficiaries in a will become susceptible to outsiders gaining knowledge of their personal and financial information.

Ideally, when a person dies with a will, that will is admitted to probate. During the probate proceedings, the court determines whether the will is valid, and if it is, then the court oversees the probate administration. Probate documents, including wills, often contain both personal and financial information. Once those documents are admitted to probate, they become public records, which allows other individuals to learn more about the personal and financial information of the individuals involved.

Locating Florida probate records is a simple process, and some counties even have the records available online. Under Florida law, a party can file a motion to seal trial court records, including those in probate court. The Supreme Court of Florida also recently amended the Florida Probate Rules, attempting to minimize the amount of sensitive personal information required to be disclosed in probate documents. The recent amendments include the ability to only require a minor’s initials and year of birth, instead of the minor’s full name on probate documents.

Privacy in probate documents is arguably a concern for everyone, and the larger the estate the more publicly visible it may become. For example, when Dallas billionaire, Harold Simmons, died in 2013, Simmons’s widow moved to seal her deceased husband’s probate case in an attempt to prevent the will from being made public due to concerns for her privacy, safety, and security. The probate judge in the Simmons estate case was receptive to the widow’s arguments, and the judge was willing to grant a portion of the Estate’s/widow’s motion to seal, suggesting the possibility of redacting some of the names in the will as well.

Another ongoing, high profile case in New Jersey involves the estate of billionaire Ronald Perelman. The Perelman estate has been the center of a highly publicized “messy family legal brawl” since 2012. As these cases indicate, a probate matter has the potential to find itself in the media limelight, and with it, the beneficiaries’ personal and financial matters can also fall into the limelight.

Nonetheless, precautions can be taken under Florida law to minimize the amount of personal and financial information revealed in probate proceedings, as well as in the probate documents themselves. If you or someone you know would like to learn more about how to minimize the amount of personal and financial information revealed in probate documents and probate proceedings, please do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Chepenik Trushin LLP, who are ready, willing, and able to take care of all of your estate planning and probate needs.