What Happens to Digital Assets After Death?

What is a digital asset? This is the question asked in a recent article “Estate Planning for Digital Assets” from Westchester & Fairfield County Business Journals. Any type of electronic data you have the right to access is considered a digital asset, although they come in a variety of forms.

A digital asset now includes email accounts, social media, online banking, online subscriptions, e-commerce, photo stream, cell phone apps, gaming accounts and everything having to do with cryptocurrency. Don’t leave out airline miles or other loyalty program points.

When so much of our lives is online, we need to address estate planning for this new class of assets.

They are as important, and some might argue, even more important than traditional assets. They may have financial or sentimental value. If neglected, they are an easy entryway for hackers prying into financial accounts.

Consider your family photos. Most of us have these stored on the cloud, hoping they never disappear. However, when they do, they can be gone forever. The same could easily happen for accounts of gamers who are spending traditional money on games and building up online assets with monetary value.

Can you protect and organize digital assets?

Yes, absolutely. Start with a list of all digital accounts including URLs, usernames and passwords. You should also note whether access requires third-party authentication—a verification code from a phone number or an email address to log in.

Create some kind of list, whether on a spreadsheet (encrypted for security), using an online password manager or a digital asset app. Paper also works, as long as it’s kept in a secure location.

How do digital assets get incorporated into my estate plan?

In most states, your executor can be given the right to access online accounts through your will, or you can include digital asset access in a Power of Attorney. However, it’s not that simple. Certain digital platforms only allow the original user access, even with passwords and authentication codes. Each has a Terms of Service Agreement to protect your privacy and the platform.

Some platforms offer the ability to name a legacy contact who can gain access to your account and either delete it or memorialize it after you die. However, not all do. You’ll need to go through all of your digital accounts to determine which ones permit a legacy contact and the limitations given to the legacy contact.

To support any litigation arising from a platform refusing to allow access, leave specific instructions in for your executor or agent instructing them as to what you want done with your digital assets. This directive may give your executor or agent the support they need to go up against big data. Your estate planning attorney will know the laws in your state and help create a plan.

Reference: Westchester & Fairfield County Business Journals (July 18, 2022) “Estate Planning for Digital Assets”

What Is Power of Attorney and Is It Important?

Most people realize the importance of the last will and testament. However, they remain unaware of the importance of a durable power of attorney. This document authorizes another person to act on your behalf while you are alive and expires upon death, as explained in a recent article titled “Power of attorney likely to be first vital estate document” from The News-Enterprise.

The power of attorney is used to give authorization regarding legal and financial matters. It can be tailored to be as broad or as narrow as one wishes. A healthcare proxy, also known as a healthcare power of attorney, is used to give authorization for medical decisions.

The general Power of Attorney is used when a person is unable to act for themselves due to illness or injury. It is also needed when a person is unable to act on their own behalf because of mental incapacity. The POA is also used for when someone prefers to have another person manage their financial affairs.

Spouses use POAs to handle day-to-day financial tasks, from dealing with insurance companies to managing bank accounts, loans, or other financial matters. If one spouse cannot attend a real estate closing, for instance, the other will need a POA so they may represent their spouse.

Some people think just adding another person to an account will work the same way as a POA. However, this is not accurate. A co-owner might be able to pay bills. However, their ability to do anything else will be limited. They won’t be able to amend the account, unless both parties are present, for instance.

POAs are state-specific documents, so any Power of Attorney, whether for healthcare or finances, should be created by an estate planning attorney in the state where you live and any state where you own property.

Some powers, including the ability to make gifts of the principal’s property or to change beneficiaries for retirement accounts or life insurance policies, may sound as if they are far beyond what’s needed when these documents are first drafted. However, unexpected things happen at all stages of life, and situations arise where these powers are needed. Seemingly simple tasks become far more complicated, if the POA doesn’t permit these types of additional powers.

If there is concern about broad powers, the document can include limited language. For instance, a POA can include a limit on gifting the principal’s property pursuant to any previously documented wishes. This will allow gifting to be completed, but only to the terms already indicated. However, be careful about broad limiting language, like limiting gifts to annual gift exclusions. Prohibiting an agent from acting in ways to protect the principal’s property and best interest could be counterproductive.

Drafted by an experienced estate planning attorney to suit the specific needs of the individual, a power of attorney can make it possible for a trusted individual to conduct your wishes and protect your best interests. Make sure that you have one and update it whenever you update your overall estate plan.

Reference: The News Enterprise (June 25, 2022) “Power of attorney likely to be first vital estate document”

What Happens If You Become Incapacitated?

If you became incapacitated and advance planning had been done, your family will have the legal documents you need. Just as importantly, they will know what your wishes are for incapacity and end-of-life care. If there was no planning, your loved ones will have to start with a lengthy application to the court to have someone named a guardian. They are a person who has legal authority to make medical decisions on your behalf.

Having a plan in place beforehand is always better, explains the article “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?” from Waterdown Daily Times.

Another reason to plan ahead: the court does not require the guardian to be a family member. Anyone can request a guardian to be appointed for another incapacitated individual, whether incapacity is a result of illness or injury. If no planning has been done, a guardianship must be established.

This is not an easy or inexpensive process. A petition must be filed, and the person in question must be legally declared incapacitated. In some cases, these filings are done secretly, and a guardianship maybe established without the person or their family even knowing it has occurred.

There are also many cases where one family member believes they are better suited for the task, and the family becomes embroiled in controversy about who should serve as the guardian.

The entire problem can be resolved by working with an experienced estate planning attorney long before incapacity becomes an issue. A comprehensive estate plan will include a plan for distribution of assets (Last Will and Testament), Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney and a Living Will.

These last two documents work together to describe your wishes for end-of-life care, medical treatment and any other medical issues you would want conveyed to healthcare providers.

Unfortunately, the pandemic revealed just how important it is to have these matters taken care of. If you did create these documents in the last few years, it would be wise to review them, since the people in key roles may have changed. While the idea of being on a respirator may have at one time been a clear and firm no, you may feel otherwise now.

A Healthcare Power of Attorney is an advance directive used to name a person, who becomes your “agent,” to make healthcare decisions. If there is no Healthcare Power of Attorney, physicians will ask a family member to make a decision. If no family can be reached in a timely manner, the court may be asked to appoint a legal guardian to be the decision-maker. In an urgent situation, the physician will have to make the decision, and it may not be the decision you wanted.

The Living Will explains your wishes for end-of-life care. For instance, if you become seriously ill and don’t want a feeding tube or artificial heart machine, you can say so in this document. You can even state who you do and do not wish to visit you when you are sick.

The best advice is to have a complete estate plan, including these vital documents, created by an experienced estate planning attorney. If you have an estate plan and have not reviewed it in the past three to five years, a review would be best for you and your loved ones.

Reference: Watertown Daily Times (April 14, 2022) “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?”

What Estate Planning Documents are Used to Plan for Incapacity?
An concept Image of a power of attorney

What Estate Planning Documents are Used to Plan for Incapacity?

The chief reason for a Power of Attorney (POA) is to appoint an agent who can make decisions about business and financial matters if you become incapacitated, according to an article “Estate planning in case of incapacity” from The Sentinel-Record. For most people, the POA becomes effective at a later date, when the person signs a written authorization to act under the document, or when the person is determined to be incapacitated. This often involves having the person’s treating physician sign a notarized statement declaring the person to be incapacitated. This type of POA is referred to as a “Springing POA,” since it springs from a future event.

The challenge with a springing POA is that it requires reaching a point in the person’s life where it is clinically clear they are incapacitated. If the person has not yet been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, but it is making poor decisions or not able to care for themselves, it becomes necessary to go through the process of documenting their incapacity and going through the state’s process to activate the POA.

For a more immediate POA, your estate planning attorney may recommend creating and signing a Durable Power of Attorney. This allows you to appoint someone to manage personal and business affairs immediately. For this reason, it is extremely important that the person you name be 100% trustworthy, since they will have instant legal access to all of your property.

A Power of Attorney can be customized to include broad powers or limited to a specific transaction, like selling your home.

This is not the only way to allow another person to take over your affairs in the event of incapacity.  However, it is easier than seeking guardianship or conservatorship. Another method is to place assets in a revocable trust, which allows you to maintain control of the assets while alive and of legal capacity. The trust includes a successor trustee, who takes over in the event you become incapacitated or die.

The successor trustee only has control of the assets owned by the trust, so if the purpose of the trust is planning for incapacity, many, if not all, of your assets will need to be retitled and put into the trust.

A properly created estate plan will often use both the Durable Power of Attorney and a Revocable Living Trust, when preparing for incapacity.

Sadly, many people fail to have these legal tools created. As a result, when they are incapacitated, the family must go to court to have a person appointed to manage their affairs. This is usually referred to as a “legal guardianship.” The proceeding to obtain a guardianship is lengthy and complicated. Once the guardianship is established, the guardian must file annual accountings with the court documenting how all of the funds are used. The guardian must also post a surety bond, designed to protect assets in case of improper use.

Guardianship and its costs and time-consuming tasks can all be avoided with a properly prepared estate plan, including planning for incapacity.

Reference: The Sentinel-Record (March 27, 2022) “Estate planning in case of incapacity”

How Do You Get a Power of Attorney?

If you are involved as a care provider for someone who is not able to manage their own affairs, you need to have the legal authority to act in the person’s best interest. To do that, you’ll need to have Power of Attorney (POA) for them, explains the article “How to get power of attorney for a loved one” from Tyron Daily Bulletin.

If the person you are trying to help suffers from dementia, a terminal illness or a condition which makes it difficult for them to communicate or make reasoned decisions, you may not be able to obtain a POA. As a result, may need to go to court for a guardianship or conservatorship instead.

POAs vary by state, so talk with an estate planning attorney to find out what your state allows. In most cases, the POA gives you the power to act on someone else’s behalf for a specific period of time regarding financial management. In most states, you will need a separate healthcare POA to make healthcare decisions or to speak with healthcare providers.

The agent (also known as an attorney in fact) under a POA is required to act in the best interest of the principal. Decisions regarding investments, property, bank accounts, debts and other financial matters must always place the principal first. It is crucial to maintain complete and accurate records of all transactions, and the agent’s finances and personal affairs must be kept separate from the principals.

If the principal is alive and of sound mind, they can overrule the agent’s decision, change or even terminate the POA agreement. They can also name someone else to serve as their agent with another POA. All POA powers terminate upon the death of the principal. Unless the same person has been named as agent under POA and as the executor of the estate or is appointed as executor (or administrator) by the court, that person’s responsibility ends upon the death of the principal.

There are a number of things that an agent under a POA cannot do:

  • Be paid for personal services provided to the principal
  • Vote in place of the principal
  • Take over the principal’s guardianship of another person
  • Change the principal’s will.

Even if you or the person who is naming you as the agent under their POA is in good health now, it is wise to plan for the future. We do not know when our capacity to manage finances or make healthcare decisions will be lost. Speak with an estate planning attorney about the POA to best serve your circumstances before it is needed.

Reference: Tyron Daily Bulletin (March 7, 2022) “How to get power of attorney for a loved one”

Do You Need a Revocable or Irrevocable Trust?

However, below the surface of estate planning and the world of trusts, things get complicated. Revocable trusts become irrevocable trusts, when the grantor becomes incapacitated or dies. It is just one of the many twists and turns in trusts, as reported in the article “What’s the difference between a revocable and irrevocable trust” from Market Watch.

For starters, the person who creates the trust is known as the “grantor.” The grantor can change the trust while living, or while the grantor has legal capacity. If the grantor becomes incapacitated, the grantor can’t change the trust. An agent or Power of Attorney for the grantor can make changes, if specifically authorized in the trust, as could a court-appointed conservator.

Despite the name, irrevocable trusts can be changed—more so now than ever before. Irrevocable trusts created for asset protection, tax planning or Medicaid planning purposes are treated differently than those becoming irrevocable upon the death of the grantor.

When an irrevocable trust is created, the grantor may still retain certain powers, including the right to change trustees and the right to re-direct who will receive the trust property, when the grantor dies or when the trust terminates (these don’t always occur at the same time). A “testamentary power of appointment” refers to the retained power to appoint or distribute assets to anyone, or within limitations.

When the trust becomes irrevocable, the grantor can give the right to change trustees or to change ultimate beneficiaries to other people, including the beneficiaries. A trust could say that a majority of the grantor’s children may hire and fire trustees, and each child has the right to say where his or her share will go, in the event he or she dies before receiving their share.

Asset protection and special needs trusts also appoint people in the role of trust protectors. They are empowered to change trustees and, in some cases, to amend the trust completely. The trust is irrevocable for the grantor, but not the trust protector. Another trust might have language to limit this power, typically if it is a special needs trust. This allows a trust protector to make necessary changes, if rules regarding government benefits change regarding trusts.

Irrevocable trusts have become less irrevocable over the years, as more states have passed laws concerning “decanting” trusts, reformation and non-judicial settlement of trusts. Decanting a trust refers to “pouring” assets from one trust into another trust—allowing assets to be transferred to other trusts. Depending on the state’s laws, there needs to be a reason for the trust to be decanted and all beneficiaries must agree to the change.

Trust reformation requires court approval and must show that the reformation is needed if the trust is to achieve its original purpose. Notice must be given to all current and future beneficiaries, but they don’t need to agree on the change.

The Uniform Trust Code permits trust reformation without court involvement, known as non-judicial settlement agreements, where all parties are in agreement. The law has been adopted in 34 states and the District of Columbia. Any change that doesn’t violate a material purpose of the trust is permitted, as long as all parties are in agreement.

Reference: Market Watch (Oct. 8, 2021) “What’s the difference between a revocable and irrevocable trust”

What Should a Power of Attorney Include?

The pandemic has taught us how swiftly our lives can change, and interest in having a power of attorney (POA) has increased as a result. But you need to know how this powerful document is and what it’s limits are. A recent article from Forbes titled “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On” explains it all.

The agent acting under the authority of your POA only controls assets in your name. Assets in a trust are not owned by you, so your agent can’t access them. The trustee (you or a successor trustee, if you are incapacitated) appointed in your trust document would have control of the trust and its assets.

There are several different types of POAs. The Durable Power of Attorney goes into effect the moment it is signed and continues to be valid if you become incapacitated. The Springing Power of Attorney becomes valid only when you become incapacitated.

Most estate planning attorneys will advise you to use the Durable Power of Attorney, as the Springing Power of Attorney requires extra steps (perhaps even a court) to determine your capacity.

All authority under a Power of Attorney ceases to be effective when you die.

There are challenges to the POA. Deciding who will be your agent is not always easy. The agent has complete control over your financial life outside of assets held in trust. If you chose to appoint two different people to share the responsibility and they don’t get along, time-sensitive decisions could become tangled and delayed.

Determine gifting parameters. Will your agent be authorized to make gifts? Depending upon your estate, you may want your agent to be able to make gifts, which is useful if you want to reduce estate taxes or if you’ll need to apply for government benefits in the near future. You can also give directions as to who gets gifts and how much. Most people limit the size of gifts to the annual exclusion amount of $15,000.

Can the POA agent change beneficiary designations? Chances are a lot of your assets will pass to loved ones through a beneficiary designation: life insurance, investment, retirement accounts, etc. Do you want your POA agent to have the ability to change these? Most people do not, and the POA must specifically state this. Your estate planning attorney will be able to custom design your POA to protect your beneficiary designations.

Can the POA amend a trust? Depending upon your circumstances, you may or may not want your POA to have the ability to make changes to trusts. This would allow the POA to change beneficiaries and change the terms of the trust. Most folks have planned their trusts to work with their estate plan, and do not wish a POA agent to have the power to make changes.

The POA and the guardian. A POA may be used to name a guardian, who would be appointed by the court. This person is often the same person as the POA, with the idea that the same person you trust enough to be your POA would also be trusted to be your guardian.

The POA is a more powerful document than people think. Downloading a POA and hoping for the best can undo a lifetime of financial and estate planning. It’s best to have a POA created that is uniquely drafted for your family and your situation.

Reference: Forbes (July 19, 2021) “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On”

Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives
Book, pen and Power of Attorney document on a desktop

Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives

A medical crisis only gets worse, when you learn you don’t have legal authority to make medical decisions for a loved one, or find out after a loved one is incapacitated that you can’t gain access to assets in their trust. You need to have certain estate planning legal documents already in place, according to the article “Tips you should know for Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives” from seacoastonline.com.

Power of Attorney. The power of attorney (POA) allows one person, the “principal” to appoint another person as their “agent” (also known as an “attorney in fact”). The agent has the authority to act on behalf of the principal, depending on the powers described in the document. Each state has its own laws about who can be an agent, if more than one person can be appointed as agent and if there are any limits to what power can be given to an agent. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create a POA to suit your situation.

A POA can be created to give extremely broad powers to an agent. This is sometimes called a “general” POA, where agents can do everything that you would do, from accessing and managing bank accounts, applying for Social Security, to filing tax returns. A POA can also be limited in scope, known as “limited” POA. You could permit an agent to only sign a tax return or conduct a specific transaction.

In most estate planning scenarios, the POA is “durable,” meaning the named agent can continue to have authority to act, even if the principal is incapacitated after the documents have been executed. This makes sense: a durable POA generally avoids having to go to court and have a guardian appointed. The person you have selected will be the POA, not a court-appointed person.

Advance Directive. The advance directive allows a person to appoint another person to make medical decisions on their behalf if incapacitated. In some states, this is called a durable power of attorney for health care, and in others it is referred to as a health care proxy.

In most cases, the advance directive becomes effective when one or more treating physicians determine the person no longer has capacity to make or communicate health care decisions. Having this document in place avoids having to go to court to have a guardian appointed. If time is of the essence, any delay in decision-making could lead to a poor outcome. If there is no advance directive and physicians have decided you are unable to make these decisions, they go by a hierarchy of relatives to make the decisions for you. If you have an estranged adult child, for instance, but they are your next-of-kin, they could be the one making decisions for you.

If you have children who recently became legal adults (usually age 18), these documents will protect them as well, since just being their parent does not provide you with the right to make these decisions.

Reference: Seacoastonline.com (June 27, 2021) “Tips you should know for Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives”

What can a Power of Attorney Do—or Not Do?

Power of attorney is an important tool in estate planning. The recent article “Top Ten Facts About Powers of Attorney” from My Prime Time News, explains how a POA works, what it can and cannot do and how it helps families with loved ones who are incapacitated.

The agent’s authority to powers of attorney (POA) is only effective while the person is living. It ends upon the death of the principal. At that point in time, the executor named in the last will or an administrator named by a court are the only persons legally permitted to act on behalf of the decent.

An incapacitated person may not sign a POA.

Powers of Attorney can be broad or narrow. A person may be granted POA to manage a single transaction, for example, the sale of a home. They may also be named POA to handle all of a person’s financial and legal affairs. In some states, such as Colorado, general language in a POA may not be enough to authorize certain transactions. A POA should be created with an estate planning attorney as part of a strategic plan to manage the principal’s assets. A generic POA could create more problems than it solves.

You can have more than one agent to serve under your POA. If you prefer that two people serve as POA, the POA documents will need to state that requirement.

Banks and financial institutions have not always been compliant with POAs. In some cases, they insist that only their POA forms may be used. This has created problems for many families over the years, when POAs were not created in a timely fashion.

In 2010, Colorado law set penalties for third parties (banks, etc.) that refused to honor current POAs without reasonable cause. A similar law was passed in New York State in 2009. Rules and requirements are different from state to state, so speak with a local estate planning attorney to ensure that your POA is valid.

Your POA is effective immediately, once it is executed. A Springing POA becomes effective when the conditions specified in the POA are met. This often includes having a treating physician sign a document attesting to your being incapacitated. An estate planning attorney will be able to create a POA that best suits your situation.

If you anticipate needing a trust in the future, you may grant your agent the ability to create a trust in your POA. The language must align with your state’s laws to achieve this.

Your agent is charged with reporting any financial abuse and taking appropriate action to safeguard your best interests. If your agent fails to notify you of abuse or take actions to stop the abuser, they may be liable for reasonably foreseeable damages that could have been avoided.

The agent must never use your property to benefit himself, unless given authority to do so. This gets sticky, if you own property together. You may need additional documents to ensure that the proper authority is granted, if your POA and you are in business together, for example.

Every situation is different, and every state’s laws and requirements are different. It will be worthwhile to meet with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the documents created will be valid and to perform as desired.

Reference: My Prime-Time News (April 10, 2021) “Top Ten Facts About Powers of Attorney”

What Is a Living Trust Estate Plan?

Living trusts are one of the most popular estate planning tools. However, a living trust accomplishes several goals, explains the article “Living trusts allow estates to avoid probate” from The Record Courier. A living trust allows for the management of a beneficiary’s inheritance and may also reduce estate taxes. A person with many heirs or who owns real estate should consider including a living trust in their estate plan.

A trust is a fiduciary relationship, where the person who creates the trust, known as the “grantor,” “settlor,” “trustor” or “trustmaker,” gives the “trustee” the right to hold title to assets to benefit another person. This third person is usually an heir, a beneficiary, or a charity.

With a living trust, the grantor, trustee and beneficiary may be one and the same person. A living trust may be created by one person for that person’s benefit. When the grantor dies, or becomes incapacitated, another person designated by the trust becomes the successor trustee and manages the trust for the benefit of the beneficiary or heir. All of these roles are defined in the trust documents.

The living trust, which is sometimes referred to as an “inter vivos” trust, is created to benefit the grantor while they are living. A grantor can make any and all changes they wish while they are living to their trust (within the law, of course). A testamentary trust is created through a person’s will, and assets are transferred to the trust only when the grantor dies. A testamentary trust is an “irrevocable” trust, and no changes can be made to an irrevocable trust.

There are numerous other trusts used to manage the distribution of wealth and protect assets from taxes. Any trust agreement must identify the name of the trust, the initial trustee and the beneficiaries, as well as the terms of the trust and the name of a successor trustee.

For the trust to achieve its desired outcome, assets must be transferred from the individual to the trust. This is called “funding the trust.” The trust creator typically holds title to assets, but to fund the trust, titled property, like bank and investment accounts, real property or vehicles, are transferred to the trust by changing the name on the title. Personal property that does not have a title is transferred by an assignment of all tangible property to the trustee. An estate planning attorney will be able to help with this process, which can be cumbersome but is completely necessary for the trust to work.

Some assets, like life insurance or retirement accounts, do not need to be transferred to the trust. They use a beneficiary designation, naming a person who will become the owner upon the death of the original owner. These assets do not belong in a trust, unless there are special circumstances.

Reference: The Record Courier (April 3, 2021) “Living trusts allow estates to avoid probate”