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How do you learn what's in an estate plan after a loved one dies?

Like most things in life, finding out how (or if) you've been included in a loved one's estate plan after they're gone isn't like you've seen on TV or in the movies. It's not a group of family members sitting in a lawyer's office finding out if they're going to be millionaires or if they'll have to drive that 2002 Toyota Corolla for a little longer.

If the deceased person had a will and/or other estate planning documents in place, their attorney would provide a copy of the documents to those entitled to see them. That would generally include direct beneficiaries and people named as executors, trustees and other administrators.

If a family member has been left out of the will, the attorney may choose to send a copy to that person as well. This will allow them to see for themselves that they're not included. Of course, they could still decide to contest the will. However, by providing them with a copy of the document(s), the attorney can limit the amount of time they have to file a will contest with the court.

If an estate plan goes through probate, it becomes public record. Therefore, anyone can access the documents eventually unless an executor successfully petitions a probate court to seal the records. That's rarely done, however, unless the deceased is famous. In Tennessee, some assets don't have to go through probate -- such as anything included in a living or revocable trust. However, probate proceedings are required for wills.

When drawing up your estate plan, you can help prevent unpleasant surprises among your loved ones and challenges to your estate by giving your family an idea of what to expect. It's not enjoyable to tell an adult child, for example, that you're placing their inheritance in a trust where the funds will be managed and distributed by a responsible trustee. If you've chosen to leave one child more than the others, you may prefer that everyone finds out after you're gone. However, it's often best if you explain your decisions yourself so that they can better understand your reasoning.

Your Tennessee estate planning attorney can help you determine how best to discuss your estate plan with your loved ones. They can also help you take steps to avoid a lengthy probate process for those you leave behind.

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