Last week, I attended the Heckerling Institute on Estate Planning. There were many good sessions at the week-long conference.
One of the breakout sessions was Protecting Client Privacy and Security. That was a scary session which discussed a wide array of privacy and security concerns, including physical and computer security. The session made me reluctant to walk to my car, use email, use credit cards, or otherwise engage in normal daily activities. If you’ve ever seen the film Taken, you have an idea of some of the discussion. However, the session did highlight a simple solution to increase privacy and security: use a revocable trust rather than a will as the primary estate planning vehicle. As we know, a will is a public document. As a result, the contents of the will are ordinarily public knowledge. That means that the amount of assets, the addresses of homes, the names of beneficiaries, etc., are usually all disclosed to the public. If a beneficiary is disinherited, that is public knowledge, as well. While this is of most concern to high profile individuals, such as celebrities, billionaires, etc., it should be of concern to even the lowest profile individuals. If a will is used, in the best case scenario, the client’s heirs could go to the probate court and seek an order to redact portions of the will which put them at particular risk. This was the situation after the death of Harold Simmons. Simmons was a Texas billionaire who was known for his conservative political activism. Simmons left his assets via a will. The will left all of his assets to his third wife and disinherited his children from prior relationships. Some of the assets of the estate were homes and the addresses of these would have been made public in the estate. Since Simmons’ family lived in the homes, they sought to have the will sealed. The probate court refused to seal the will, but did redact parts of it, such as addresses of the homes. Here’s a link to a story about the case.
It would have been much better if Simmons would have used a revocable trust to hold his assets. First, it would have obviated the necessity of going to court to keep matters private. Second, the real estate he owned in several states would not have required several ancillary probates. In the average client’s situation, the privacy of a revocable trust is a simple solution which provides affordable security protection from predators who cull probate files looking for victims and privacy protection from nosy relatives and neighbors looking for juicy tidbits about who was favored and who was disinherited.
Later this month, I will be presenting an educational conference call for members of the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, titled Heard at Heckerling. In that call, I will highlight what I thought were the most important topics and takeaways from the conference, including expectations on the future of estate and tax planning.
Stephen C. Hartnett, J.D., LL.M.
Associate Director of Education
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (858) 453-2128
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