The probate process is public, and so most families whose estate planning includes only a will usually have the details of the document laid out to anyone in the community who chooses to examine it. Yet, that rule is usually best exemplified by looking at the exceptions. While a will is generally a public document, a family can try to have the will "sealed." Most of the time this is not successful. In fact, the few cases where it is allowed often related to the death of celebrities or high-profile individuals. For example, Joe Paterno's will was sealed earlier this year.
Similarly, Financial Planning just reported that the family of Monkee's band member Davy Jones also successfully petitioned to have his will sealed. Jones died last February after a heart attack at age 66.
In this case, Jones's eldest daughter--the representative of the estate--argued in court documents that the will should be sealed because "public opinion [after reading the will] could have material effect on his copyrights, royalties and ongoing goodwill." Our New York estate planning lawyers appreciate this request is a good example of why most community members cannot have a will sealed. It is not sufficient to request these planning documents hidden from public view simply because one is a "private person"--there usually has to be real, demonstrable material reason to do so.
Of course, the sealing of Jones' will simply raised public curiosity about what might be in the documents which would influence public opinion. Some believe that it has to do with Jones' marriage. Davy Jones's widow is significantly younger than the star--and younger than two of his daughters. Much friction allegedly existed between the widow and the adult children.
Interestingly, the will did not even include the widow, because it was written years before they met and was not updated after the wedding. Yet, that does not mean that Jones' wife will not receive anything. That is because she took advantage of rules for spouses allowing them to take a share of the estate regardless of the details in planning documents.
Alternatively, some also suspect that the family wanted to will sealed in order to hide the fact that the estate was not strong. No one knows for sure how much money Jones had in the end. Various claims have already been made on the estate for unpaid bills.
In any event, the lesson from this case for most New York estate plans is that tools like trusts are always advisable to avoid this publicity issue entirely--ensuring affairs will be handled swiftly without any speculation, potential fights, or possible embarrassment.
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