The details of your last will and testament can be intensely personal. Most people keep it in a safe place and tell very few people it exists, keeping the contents of the document private until they pass away.
However, that privacy ends shortly after your death. Your personal representative (or the person with physical custody of your will) must file the will and a copy of the death certificate with the local court in order to begin closing the estate. Once the will is deposited in probate court, it becomes a matter of public record—and it can be accessed by anyone who is interested in its contents.
Information That Can Be Accessed by the Public After Probate
The good news is that Florida courts do not make wills and other probate records available online. If someone wants to see a copy of your will, they will have to physically visit the courthouse to request the information. Unfortunately, there are no laws prohibiting any interested party from reading your will, making a copy of the document, or even posting details of your will in a public forum.
As you can imagine, the publication of the will can cause significant problems involving:
- The personal representative. Probate documents may include the name of the person in charge of estate administration, their contact information, and location of the probate.
- Disinherited heirs. Publication may release details of any codicils admitted to probate, including orders revoking any prior wills and codicils. The information in these documents may come as a shock to beneficiaries whose inheritances have been reduced or eliminated, making a will contest more likely.
- Creditors. Once creditors have been made aware of probate, they may come calling to collect the balance of any debts from the value of the estate. This can slow down the administration process and reduce the amount that will be passed on to your intended beneficiaries.
- Scammers and burglars. While the personal representative's inventory and accountings are kept private, any distributions made through the will could be released to the public—including the recipients of valuable assets such as a coin collection, engagement ring, or valuable paintings.
Do Any Details of the Estate Remain Private During Probate?
Florida law prohibits the publication of the cause of death of any resident, as well as the paternity, marital status, and medical information pertaining to fetal death records. While the cause of death remains confidential, death certificates may be recorded into public records with the confidential sections deleted.
In addition, the official inventories and accountings filed in estates are considered confidential, but there are still a few people who may access them. The personal representative, the personal representative's attorney, and any "interested party" with a valid reason to view the documents can see the full details of the estate, including all assets, the value of assets, and property and real estate holdings.
Anything else filed with the clerk of the probate court will be publicly available, unless a court order to close certain records is filed and granted.
How Can I Keep Prying Eyes Off of My Estate Plan?
The most effective way to pass on your estate while keeping the details of your holdings private is to remove the need for probate court involvement. In a trust-based estate plan, immediately transfers control of your assets to your chosen trustee if you are incapacitated or pass away. The trust document is similar to a will because it states how your property is to be divided, how funds should be invested, and who will receive your assets—but everything in a trust passes outside of probate.
Since the trust document is never filed in probate court, the information is not made public and nobody can request to see it without good reason. Trustees and beneficiaries are legally permitted to see the trust document, keeping the details of your estate firmly in the family.
If you need help navigating the probate process, the estate administration attorneys at DeLoach, Hofstra & Cavonis can walk you through all the necessary steps required to close the estate. Contact us today to set up a consultation and get answers to your questions.