The Natalie Wood Problem: Probate, Privacy Are Mutually Exclusive

After a person dies, anyone in the world can get a copy of the will, read it word-for-word, and obtain a list of the deceased person’s assets.

Editor's note: Lisa Lehman is off this week, so we are sharing one of her columns from February 2011. Enjoy!

My father, a widower, recently passed away. He had a will that gave all of his estate to me and nothing to my sister. She has been a crack addict for years and refuses to get help for  her addiction. She flunked out of college and has never held a job. My sister also was very mean to my father.  In his will, he actually listed these reasons to explain why she wasn't getting anything.  These are very private family matters.  I 've been told that anybody could go to the probate court and read his will. Is this true?   Thanks, Lisa — Don 

Hello Don:            

Regrettably, the answer to your question is “yes.”  The first step in a probate is filing the will of the deceased person with the court.  The will then becomes a matter of “public record” – meaning that anyone in the world could read your father’s will, word-by-word and even obtain a copy of it.          

I certainly understand that this is very troubling for you. And I hate to say this, but there is more cause for concern. Notice of your father’s death also must be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the county in which your father resided.  There are people out there who have no relationship whatsoever with your father, but regularly read these newspaper notices with the intention of obtaining some type of advantage (usually financial) on account of your father’s death.  I don’t want get melodramatic here, but one of your sister’s drug dealers could contact you and say that she owes him money and he may harm her if you don’t send him the money.         

So where does Natalie Wood come into all of this?  Well, anyone could discover that Wood died owning about 40 fur coats and $6 million.  The media covered this extensively when she died.  This is because an “inventory” (the list of her assets) also was filed with the court and available to the public. There also will be such an inventory filed for your father.           

This week’s column addresses only one problematic aspect of a probate. Many others exist.  However, there are ways to keep your family and financial matters private, such as the “.” It's a common estate planning technique that protects family privacy. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to learn more about the Revocable Trust. I offer a one-hour consultation at no charge to you.               

If any reader would like to ask me a legal question, post it on the Lake Zurich Patch website or send your question to me at lehmanlawoffices@aol.com

Don, I am so sorry for your loss. Thanks for your question. I believe it will get many people thinking …                         

My best regards,                           


Disclaimer: Please be aware that this column provides only legal advice of a general nature and it not intended as legal advice for any person or group of persons. You must  always consult with an attorney with respect to your particular legal situation.


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