Elder Law Estate Planning Legal Topics Real Property Law

Steve Jobs: Private in Life, Private in Death

The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was known to be a very private person, and it appears that he has taken steps to preserve his privacy even in death. As do many entertainers and wealthy people, it appears that Jobs took advantage of California revocable trusts to prevent the publicity involved in probate.

A will must usually be probated if the value of the decedent’s assets passing to someone other than a surviving spouse or registered domestic partner exceeds $150,000 ($100,000 before January 1, 2012). See Prob C §§13100, 13151; Fam C §297.5. An issue for many, particularly celebrities and those with great wealth, is that probate is public.

The court file of a probate proceeding discloses extensive information about a decedent’s assets, debts, and disposition of the assets. The court file is a public record, easily viewed by anyone willing to go to the court clerk’s office and make a request.

This is one reason that families who want privacy look to a revocable trust, which can be kept confidential as long as the beneficiaries and next of kin cooperate.

This seems to be the route taken by Steve Jobs and his wife. According to Reuters, the intensely private Jobs put at least three properties into trusts in 2009, likely to ensure that his assets would not be disclosed when he died last week. In his interview with Reuters, John O’Grady, a San Francisco trusts and estates attorney, explained that “[t]he details may never emerge if [Jobs] did it right.”

A revocable trust is so attractive to people like Jobs because it eliminates the publicity of court filings. Trust provisions may become public if an interested party invokes the court’s jurisdiction under Prob C §17200, but by that time the interest of the public and press in the decedent’s affairs may have subsided.

Although this does not seem to be an issue for Jobs, revocable trusts are not a good way to keep a clients’ dispositions from being disclosed to certain family members. The privacy benefits of California revocable trusts are extremely limited with regard to family members because of the notification provisions of California’s laws, which generally require the trustee to give copies of the terms of the trust that becomes irrevocable at death to any beneficiary or heir of the settlor who requests them. The trustee has to notify these persons of that right. Prob C §§16060.5-16061.9. Clients who want privacy for a specific disposition should consider using an irrevocable trust or some other nonprobate transfer method for that particular disposition.

Non-family third parties can be kept in the dark, however. Generally, California law makes it possible for a trustee to administer a trust without disclosing the dispositive provisions to third parties involved in business transactions with the trust. Third parties are protected in transactions with trustees if the trustee provides a specified certification concerning trust information and discloses certain information that notably doesn’t include the dispositive provisions. Prob C §18100.5.

For everything you need to know about creating a California revocable trust, turn to CEB’s Drafting California Revocable Trusts. Also check out CEB’s Funding a Revocable Trust, a useful guide on the process of transferring assets into a revocable trust, and CEB’s program Drafting Revocable Trusts I: The Basics, available On Demand.

© The Regents of the University of California, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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