Probate records are normally matters of public record that can be viewed by anyone interested. However, judges do have the power, even if it is rarely used, to seal probate records when deemed appropriate, as a case in Oklahoma illustrates.
One of the many reasons that people often seek to avoid probate with their estate plans is because probate records are open to the public. Many people prefer to keep their estate’s affairs free from public scrutiny.
Interestingly, judges have the authority to seal probate records on a case-by-case basis if there is just cause to do so. However, that authority is rarely used. Nevertheless, in the case of Mark Costello, an Oklahoma judge has sealed his will.
So, who was Mark Costello? The Labor Commissioner in Oklahoma.
How did he die? He was slain by multiple stab wounds at an ice cream parlor on August 23.
The alleged slayer? His own son, Christian Erin Costello, who was arrested at the scene after witnesses identified him as his father’s killer.
The probate judge in the case has sealed Costello’s will. Why? To do otherwise would subject the family to unnecessary speculation and public scrutiny, affect Christian Costello’s opportunity to receive a fair trial for the murder, and affect Mark Costello’s widow’s chances of receiving a protective order against her son’s girlfriend.
The judge’s reasoning certainly leaves a lot of ground for speculation about what might be in the will that it could have such a big impact on so many things.
The Oklahoman reported this story in “Oklahoma County judge seals slain labor commissioner's will from public.”
This is definitely not an average probate case, and that is the most important take away here. It takes a very unusual set of circumstances for a judge to order that probate records be sealed.
Reference: Oklahoman (September 19, 2015) “Oklahoma County judge seals slain labor commissioner's will from public.”