Did you know that since a will is considered a court document, anyone, regardless of connection to the deceased, can request a copy of it and for a fee, become privy to that person’s most intimate and final decisions regarding legacy and heirs? An article in the Times of Jan 30th reveals the full names of David Bowie’s beneficiaries including his widow, children, personal assistant, children’s nanny, business manager, lawyer and executor. It includes the exact amounts of these bequests so if any criminals scan the obituary pages for new marks, The Times will have facilitated their search. It further specifies the location of some of the real estate bequeathed to heirs. If the legatees had won the lottery, they would be entitled to withhold their own identities and remain private citizens in matters that concern no one but themselves. But the thoughtful act of responsibly providing for our loved ones before dying comes with the penalty of stripping us of our fundamental right to privacy.
Is this what the law intended? Historically, probating wills through the court goes back to English Common Law and was meant to insure that claimants and creditors would have knowledge of and access to the estate of the deceased. By going thru the courts, wills now become subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Since executors are paid to inform all those who are mentioned in the will, it is creditors who benefit most from its public nature. Why not change the law so that public death notices are mandatory and those who feel they have claims on the deceased should go to court to show cause for getting access to their will. If we object to our phone calls being harvested and monitored even for national security purposes, there are questions we should be asking about our current system of probate.
Should the fact that someone was a famous entertainer entitle all of to know his most personal data the moment he dies? Should the innocent heirs of a celebrity be outed by a newspaper so that they are instantly transformed from private people to public personalities? The NYTimes uses its discretion to protect the name of a rape victim but chooses not to respect the privacy of a mourner, especially during a time of grief. The same newspaper that objected to revealing the names of AIDS victims to their sex partners so that those people could get immediate medical attention has no qualms about invading the privacy of families of the dead.
David Bowie was not on the public payroll, not a politician, not a government employee - no one of whom the public may demand to know any financial or personal information. His last will and testament was never intended for our scrutiny; publicizing its contents to the world at large is unethical and meretricious. In this day of internet over-exposure and increased threats to our financial and personal security - it should also become illegal.
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