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Rocket Lawyer Family law

Who Got Elvis’s Blue Suede Shoes? Why Last Wills are Public Records

Elvis. Big E. Elvis the Pelvis. The King.  Elvis was larger than life, and had a host of cool nicknames.  But on his Last Will and Testament, he was simply Elvis A. Presley. How do we know? It’s a public document and can be requested from the Shelby County Courthouse for the nominal fee of $11.50.

Paul Boyd, a Shelby County Probate Court Clerk, told us they only issue one or two a year, so if you’re a collector, we’d suggest that this could be a unique and inexpensive way to expand on your Elvis collection (albeit a little morbid). But it’s also an interesting example of how Wills, and other documents, become public records.

Why is Elvis’s Last Will and Testament a public record?

The King is just like everyone else when it comes the public availability of his Will. Before a person dies, that person’s Will is private property, shared only with close family members and heirs, and most likely, an attorney. However, after death, a Will is filed with the court as part of the probate process. Probate is the legal process of administering the estate, recording a Will, and proving that it is valid. After the Will is filed, it becomes open to the public after some amount of time (it varies by state).

What are the laws governing public records?

Because the Will is probated through the courts, it is subject to The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA is a law that provides U.S. citizens with the right to access information from the federal government, and it also extends to local governments. It is often described as the law that keeps people ‘in the know.’ Under the FOIA, agencies must disclose any information that is requested – unless that information is protected from public disclosure.

The primary reason why it’s a good thing that Last Wills are open to the public is so that creditors and other interested parties can lay claim to a deceased individual’s estate. The act of making the Will public allows others to challenge its validity, helping ensure that the process is fair. If the document were not public, justice would not be served, and acts of fraud could be more difficult to identify, since potential heirs and creditors would not have access to the document.

What if I don’t want my Will to be public?

Since a Will goes through the probate court, you can’t prevent it from eventually becoming public record. However, you can transfer your assets to a Living Trust while you’re alive, and you could shield those assets from going through probate.  One benefit of creating a Living Trust is that it doesn’t have to go through the probate process. Unlike a Will, which is a document that only goes into action after the death of the Will-writer, a Living Trust creates a separate legal entity that is not necessarily tied to the death of the person who set up the trust.  However, a trust must be set up the right way to shield assets from creditors. It’s wise to see an estate planning attorney if you want to shield your assets from others’ claims, or keep your assets a family-matter.

What kind of information should I leave out of my Will?

Because a Will becomes public, it’s best not to include anything too personal, or any information that could cause harm to your family if it were to be made public. For example, your Will is not a place for a rant about who has wronged you over the years. Although you won’t be around to see it, your heirs will be (and the the public at large, if they’re interested). It’s best to keep your Will professional.

Can Last Wills be useful for doing family research? What other kinds of records are publicly available?

Public records can be very helpful when doing research on your family history or genealogy. Many historical documents can be found online, like death certificates, birth certificates, marriage certificates and Last Wills. Obtaining copies of these personal records is a great way to learn about your family’s history.

The process for requesting records varies by locality. Some courthouses have small and informal records rooms with only one custodian in charge. Larger courthouses may have more extensive areas for records, or online records. You might be required to provide photo ID as well as other information. Normally, to get a copy of a Will, you will have to pay a small fee.

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One Comment

  1. Karmel Welles says:

    I have worked for a probate lawyer during my law school days. And I have seen the worst rants contained in a will. While a will and testament is not a place for rants, I have seen instances where testators use their will as an avenue to wash “dirty laundry.” Not a pretty sight though some are pretty funny though.