In my practice, I frequently answer questions about probate. In this article, we’ll be discussing what is public record in probate. First, let’s talk about what probate is, and for those who don’t know, probate is the process where the Probate Court oversees the administration of a deceased person’s estate (i.e., everything they owned in their name.) Probate is required in California if the estate is worth more than approximately $180,000 (as of 2023).
There are several disadvantages to probate in California (I’ve heard rumors that probate is not so bad in other states, but it sounds a little too magical to be true). One of them is that everything filed with the Probate Court is public record. Yes, you read that right. Everything – names, addresses, the contents of the deceased person’s bank accounts, everything is in the public record!
Are there any exceptions?
Confidential Information, like social security numbers, is usually redacted, so family members don’t have to worry about that. In some cases, a judge will seal the court records or certain specific documents, but this is very rare. Pretty much everything else is available for anyone to look at. Some counties make the records available online, and others require the person to go to the courthouse or mail in a request form to get copies.
What can be done?
Very little, unfortunately. It’s possible to petition the court for certain documents or information to be kept from the public, but it’s unlikely to be granted without a very good reason. The best way to keep things private is to avoid the probate process entirely. This can be done in a few different ways:
- Keep your net worth below $180,000. I don’t really recommend this route, but it is an option.
- Make all your assets joint tenancy, payable on death, etc. Anything with a designated beneficiary is not counted as part of your estate since it goes directly to the beneficiary. Setting this up and keeping your beneficiaries up to date can be a bit cumbersome, but if you can pull it off, it will work.
- Hold your assets in a trust. Anything held in trust is not counted as part of your estate. If all your assets are in a trust, then your estate will be below $180,000, and probate will be avoided. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, this option is the easiest to implement and keep up to date over time.
If you have more questions about the probate process or would like to create a trust, you are welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.