The Minnesota Judicial Branch just launched Minnesota Court Records Online (MCRO), an online platform for publicly and freely accessing district court records. This is part of a years-long project of the Minnesota judicial system to provide greater online access to public court documents without needing to physically go to a courthouse or law library. While providing the public access to public documents is a necessary part of a transparent judicial system, we have long been concerned with how this impacts the right of privacy. See our 2015 blog post mentioning this.
For many of our clients, their biggest privacy concern when it comes to the court system is probate records. These records can contain a lot of private information, including their will, the names and addresses of heirs, the value of someone's estate, the debts they owed, and the amount a person inherits. Now anyone can access all public documents in all public formal probate, other probate, guardianship and conservatorship, and trust case types filed on or after July 1, 2015 using MCRO. These privacy concerns, along with the often relatively slow administrative process involved with probate can lead many to seek to avoid probate altogether.
One alternative to allowing your estate information to be subject to probate and being so easily accessible is to establish a trust-based estate plan. Contrary to this public, will-based plan, a trust-based estate plan is private. This is because trusts are not submitted to probate. Like a will, a trust is used to direct the handling of your affairs and assets when you are gone. While many of the fears about probate are unjustified, there are still some valid reasons for avoiding probate. To determine if you should have a will or a trust, you should consult an experienced estate planning attorney as there may be other ways to avoid probate than a trust, depending on your situation.
With the ever increasing "interconnectedness" of the world, everyone has to be vigilant in maintaining the level of privacy they deem appropriate. For individuals seeking to keep their financial and family information from become publicly and freely accessible on one platform, it may be time to review whether the estate plan accomplishes that goal.
For more reading, see The Estate Planning Process: Where to Begin?
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