Questions of probate privacy raised in the Harold Simmons case

After Texan billionaire Harold Simmons recently passed away, his widow filed to seal documents related to the probate of his estate, including his will.

Regardless of what the judge considering her request ultimately decides, it’s important to think about the issues this case raises.  Generally, documents going through probate court are available to the public.  But families also have concerns about privacy, and the kinds of financial and personal information available on these documents could lead to undesirable exposure.

According to Simmons’ widow, leaving the documents open to the public will pose a security threat to beneficiaries of the will and perhaps endanger certain assets that are listed.

Ultimately, the question is how to best balance the right of the public to know what’s in the documents and the right to privacy and security for individuals going through the probate process.

How do these privacy issues affect Texans?

For some Texans, probate privacy won’t even be an issue; here are a few reasons why:

  • Depending on the assets that make up the estate, probate may not even be necessary.  Certain assets, such as proceeds from life insurance, can be transferred to a beneficiary without the need for probate.
  • Assets held in a living trust also don’t need to go through the probate process.
  • Under some circumstances, an independent executor can file an affidavit instead of filing a full inventory of assets during the probate process.

There are other reasons privacy isn’t always a major issue in these matters.  Most people’s major assets can already be easily discovered and different kinds of personal information (e.g. who’s on your marriage license) are a matter of public record.

In general, probate in Texas is a relatively quick and straightforward process, and in some cases you may not need probate at all.  If you do have concerns about privacy or want to know more about what information could be made public in probate-related documents, you should discuss these issues with a trusted estate planning attorney; an experienced attorney will look after your interests and advise you on the best solutions for your case.