Keeping Your Finances Private

"Keeping Your Finances Private"



Most of us put a high price on our privacy, especially when it comes to our finances.  Often, we’re not even willing to share the details of our financial information with our closest family members including adult children or our spouses.  It’s all a big secret.  But, in fact, once we die, it’s no longer a big secret. Upon your death, your financial information is open and available to the public. Your Last Will & Testament is filed at the court as part of the probate process.  Probate is a public process, meaning anyone can go to the court and look up your Will.


Last summer, all the details of ABC News anchorman, Peter Jennings’ Will were in virtually every media outlet. Jennings died of lung cancer at the age of 67 in August 2005. According to his Will, he left an estate valued at approximately $50 million, which included two homes in New York and other real estate in Canada; stocks, bonds and retirement plans.  He also owned two racehorses, Cabin Fever and Channel Gate. His Will specified how his assets were to be split. For example, his widow, Kayce Freed, received the New York apartment and half of the marital estate per a prenuptial agreement.  One million dollars went to his private foundation, and his adult children from his third marriage received the bulk of his estate in trust. 


If you would prefer that your financial information is not available to the public, you may want to consider setting up a Revocable Living Trust.  You set up this trust while you’re alive and it remains in effect after your death.  You would need to transfer title to all of your assets into the name of the trust.  During your lifetime, you can be your own trustee and since the trust is revocable, you can also make changes in the trust provisions. You would name a successor trustee to take over upon your death or if you become incompetent.  You will still need a Will, which will transfer to your trust any assets you failed to re-title during your lifetime. Assets held in your trust are not subject to probate at your death.  Since probate costs in Alabama are typically low, you may not save much money with this strategy but you will preserve your privacy. You will have the immediate costs associated with writing your trust and the transfer of title of property to your trust.  A Revocable Living Trust does not require a tax return so your ongoing costs to manage your trust will be minimal. If you own real estate in more than one state, as many Alabamians do, then there are even more benefits to a Revocable Living Trust.


My guess is that if Mr. Jennings had known that his personal finances would become an open book, he would have opted for a Revocable Living Trust.  For more information consult with your attorney, tax or financial advisor.