Is a Living Trust Public?

Living trusts provide more privacy than do wills.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

One of the advantages of using a living trust, instead of a will, to leave the bulk of your property is that it gives your family more privacy.

How Wills Become Public

You can keep all of your estate planning documents private as long as you're alive. After you write your will, for example, you can and should just keep it in a safe place (such as a fireproof box); you do not have to file it with a local court or other government entity.

After a death, however, most states require that whoever has possession of the deceased person's will must promptly file it with the local probate court. This is true even if there won't be any probate court proceedings. Someone who has the will but intentionally fails to file it can be penalized by the court, commonly with a fine.

Once a will has been filed, it's a matter of public record, open to anyone who wants to see it. That's why celebrities' wills show up online so quickly, often just hours after they have been deposited with the court. The public isn't interested in most ordinary folks' wills, of course, but a relative or nosy acquaintance might be, and some people just don't like the idea that anyone could see how they choose to leave their worldly goods.

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Why Trusts Stay Private

A living trust never needs to be filed with a court, either before or after your death. The probate court isn't involved in supervising your trustee, the person you name in the trust document to handle the distribution of the trust assets. The trustee simply follows the instructions you wrote in the trust document, without getting permission or approval from the court.

What You Can't Keep Private

Sometimes, details of how you intended to leave your property can't be kept entirely private—whether you use a will or a living trust to handle your affairs.

Terms of the trust, if state law requires disclosure to relatives. Many states require that if you leave a living trust, the trustee, after your death, must give a copy to the beneficiaries (people who inherit trust property) if they request it. In some states, beneficiaries only get to see the part of the document that pertains to them—but in others, they can see the whole thing, which means that one beneficiary may be able to see what all the others are inheriting, too. And in some states, the trustee must notify certain close relatives—usually defined as the people who would inherit under state law in the absence of a will—about the trust after your death, and give them a copy if they request it.

Real estate ownership. Who owns real estate is always a matter of public record. Anyone can look up a particular parcel of real estate in the local land records office (often called the county recorder or registry of deeds, depending on where you live) and find out who owns it. (Often, other information is also available, such as the amount of property taxes paid each year.) So once your real estate has been transferred to the person who inherits it, it will be a matter of public record.

Lawsuits. If you leave a living trust and a disgruntled relative sues over your estate, the trust document will probably become part of the public record of the lawsuit. These kinds of suits are rare, however, and usually crop up only when offspring who are expecting an inheritance are left with nothing or almost nothing. So unless you think someone has reason to strongly object to your estate plan, you probably don't need to worry about a court battle after your death.

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