What are Digital Assets in an Estate?

Planning for what would happen to our intangible, digital assets in the event of incapacity or death is now as important as planning for traditional assets, like real property, IRAs, and investment accounts. How to accomplish estate planning for digital assets is explained in the article, aptly named, “Estate planning for your digital assets” from the Baltimore Business Journal.

Digital asset is the term used to describe all electronically stored information and online accounts. Some digital assets have monetary value, like cryptocurrency and accounts with gaming or gambling winnings, and some may be transferrable to heirs. These include bank accounts, domains, event tickets, airline miles, etc.

Ownership issues are part of the confusion about digital assets. Your social media accounts, family photos, emails and even business records, may be on platforms where the content itself is considered to belong to you, but the platform strictly controls access and may not permit anyone but the original owner to gain control.

Until recently, there was little legal guidance in managing a person digital files and accounts in the event of incapacity and death. Accessing accounts, managing contents and understanding the owner, user and licensing agreements have become complex issues.

In 2014, the Uniform Law Commission proposed the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA) to provide fiduciaries with some clarity and direction. The law, which was revised in 2015 and is now referred to as RUFADAA (Revised UFADAA) was created as a guideline for states and almost every state has adopted these laws, providing estate planning attorneys with the legal guidelines to help create a digital estate plan.

A digital estate plan starts with considering how many digital accounts you actually own—everything from online banking, music files, books, businesses, emails, apps, utility and bill payment programs. What would happen if you were incapacitated? Would a trusted person have the credentials and technical knowledge to access and manage your digital accounts? What would you want them to do with them? In case of your demise, who would you want to have ownership or access to your digital assets?

Once you have created a comprehensive list of all of your assets—digital and otherwise—an estate planning attorney will be able to update your estate planning documents to include your digital assets. You may need only a will, or you may need any of the many planning tools and strategies available, depending upon the type, location and value of your assets.

Not having a digital asset estate plan leaves your estate vulnerable to many problems, including costs. Identity theft against deceased people is rampant, once their death is noted online. The ability to pay bills to keep a household running may take hours of detective work on your surviving spouse’s part. If your executor doesn’t know about accounts with automatic payments, your estate could give up hundreds or thousands in charges without anyone’s knowledge.

There are more complex digital assets, including cryptocurrency and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) with values from a few hundred dollars to millions of dollars. The rules on the valuation, sale and transfers of these assets are as yet largely undefined. There are also many reports of people who lose large sums because of a lack of planning for these assets.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about your state’s laws concerning digital assets and protect them with an estate plan that includes this new asset class.

Reference: Baltimore Business Journal (Sep. 16, 2021) “Estate planning for your digital assets”

Common Estate Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Every family has one: the brother-in-law or aunt who knows everything about, well, everything. When the information is wrong, expensive problems are created, especially when it comes to estate planning. Estate planning attorneys devote a good deal of time to education to help prevent unnecessary and costly mistakes, as described in the article “Misinformation, poor assumptions result in major planning mistakes” from The News-Enterprise.

The most common is the idea of a “simple” estate plan. What does “simple” mean? For most people, the idea of “simple” is appealing—they don’t want to deal with long and complicated documents with legal phrases they don’t understand. However, those complex phrases are necessary, if the estate plan is to protect your interests and loved ones.

Another mistake is thinking an estate plan is a one-and-done affair. Just as people’s lives and fortunes change over time, so should their estate plan. An estate plan created for a young family with small children won’t work for a mature couple with grown children and significant savings.

Change also comes to family dynamics. The same cousin who was like a sister during your teen years may not be as close in values or geography, when you both have elementary school children. Do you still want her to be your child’s guardian? An updated estate plan takes into account the changing relationships within the family, as well as the changing members of the family. A beloved brother-in-law isn’t so beloved, if he divorces your favorite sister. When families change, estate plans need to be updated.

Here is a huge mistake rarely articulated: somehow not thinking about death or incapacity might prevent either event from happening. We know that death is inevitable, and incapacity is statistically probable. Planning for both events in no way increases or decreases their likelihood of occurring. What planning does, is provide peace of mind in knowing you have prepared for both events.

No one wants to be in a nursing home but telling loved ones you want to remain at home “no matter what happens” is not a plan for the future. It is devastating to move a loved one into a nursing home. However, people with medical needs need to be there to receive proper care and treatment. Planning for the possibility is better than a family making arrangements, financial and otherwise, on an emergency basis.

Do you remember that all-knowing family member described in the start of this article? Their advice, however well-intentioned, can be disastrous. Alternatives to estate planning take many shapes: putting the house in the adult child’s name or adding the adult child’s name to the parent’s investment accounts. If the beneficiary has a future tax liability, debt or divorce, the parent’s assets are there for the taking.

Properly done, with the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney, your estate plan protects you and those you love, as well as the assets you’ve gained over a lifetime. Don’t fall for the idea of “simple” or back-door alternatives. Formalize your goals, so your plans and wishes will be followed.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Aug. 24, 2021) “Misinformation, poor assumptions result in major planning mistakes”

Aging Parents and Blended Families Create Estate Planning Challenges

Law school teaches about estate planning and inheritance, but experience teaches about family dynamics, especially when it comes to blended families with aging parents and step siblings. Not recognizing the realities of stepsibling relationships can put an estate plan at risk, advises the article “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?” from Forbes. The estate plan has to be designed with realistic family dynamics in mind.

Trouble often begins when one parent loses the ability to make decisions. That’s when trusts are reviewed for language addressing what should happen, if one of the trustees becomes incapacitated. This also occurs in powers of attorney, health care directives and wills. If the elderly person has been married more than once and there are step siblings, it’s important to have candid discussions. Putting all of the adult children into the mix because the parents want them to have equal involvement could be a recipe for disaster.

Here’s an example: a father develops dementia at age 86 and can no longer care for himself. His younger wife has become abusive and neglectful, so much so that she has to be removed from the home. The father has two children from a prior marriage and the wife has one from a first marriage. The step siblings have only met a few times, and do not know each other. The father’s trust listed all three children as successors, and the same for the healthcare directive. When the wife is removed from the home, the battle begins.

The same thing can occur with a nuclear family but is more likely to occur with blended families. Here are some steps adult children can take to protect the whole family:

While parents are still competent, ask who they would want to take over, if they became disabled and cannot manage their finances. If it’s multiple children and they don’t get along, address the issue and create the necessary documents with an estate planning attorney.

Plan for the possibility that one or both parents may lose the ability to make decisions about money and health in the future.

If possible, review all the legal documents, so you have a complete understanding of what is going to happen in the case of incapacity or death. What are the directions in the trust, and who are the successor trustees? Who will have to take on these tasks, and how will they be accomplished?

If there are any questions, a family meeting with the estate planning attorney is in order. Most experienced estate planning attorneys have seen just about every situation you can imagine and many that you can’t. They should be able to give your family guidance, even connecting you with a social worker who has experience in blended families, if the problems seem unresolvable.

Reference: Forbes (June 28, 2021) “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?”

Can Family Members Contest a Will?

Estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are enforceable legal documents, but when the grantor who created them passes, they can’t speak for themselves. When a loved one dies is often when the family first learns what the estate plans contain. That is a terrible time for everyone. It can lead to people contesting a will. However, not everyone can contest a will, explains the article “Challenges to wills and trusts” from The Record Courier.

A person must have what is called “standing,” or the legal right to challenge an estate planning document. A person who receives property from the decedent, and was designated in their will as a beneficiary, may file a written opposition to the probate of the will at any time before the hearing of the petition for probate. An “interested person” may also challenge the will, including an heir, child, spouse, creditor, settlor, beneficiary, or any person who has a legal property right in or a claim against the estate of the decedent.

Wills and trusts can be challenged by making a claim that the person lacked mental capacity to make the document. If they were sick or so impaired that they did not know what they were signing, or they did not fully understand the contents of the documents, they may be considered incapacitated, and the will or trust may be successfully challenged.

Fraud is also used as a reason to challenge a will or trust. Fraud occurs when the person signs a document that didn’t express their wishes, or if they were fooled into signing a document and were deceived as to what the document was. Fraud is also when the document is destroyed by someone other than the decedent once it has been created, or if someone other than the creator adds pages to the document or forges the person’s signature.

Alleging undue influence is another reason to challenge a will. This is considered to have occurred if one person overpowers the free will of the document creator, so the document creator does what the other person wants, instead of what the document creator wants. Putting a gun to the head of a person to demand that they sign a will is a dramatic example. Coercion, threats to other family members and threats of physical harm to the person are more common occurrences.

It is also possible for the personal representative or trustee’s administration of a will or trust to be challenged. If the personal representative or trustee fails to follow the instructions in the will or the trust, or does not report their actions as required, the court may invalidate some of the actions. In extreme cases, a personal representative or a trustee can be removed from their position by the court.

An estate plan created by an experienced estate planning lawyer should be prepared with an eye to the family situation. If there are individuals who are likely to challenge the will, a “no-contest” clause may be necessary. Open and candid conversations with family members about the estate plan may head off any surprises that could lead to the estate plan being challenged.

One last note: just because a family member is dissatisfied with their inheritance does not give them the right to bring a frivolous claim, and the court may not look kindly on such a case.

Reference: The Record-Courier (May 16, 2021) “Challenges to wills and trusts”

What Happens If an Unmarried Partner Dies?

If you, like so many others, found yourself settling the affairs of a loved one in the last 18 months, you may be well aware of the challenges created when there is no estate plan. The lack of planning can create an enormous headache for loved ones, explains a recent article titled “3 Estate Planning Tips for Same-Sex Couples” from The Street. If this is true for married couples, then it’s even more important for unmarried couples.

Planning for incapacity and death is not fun, but unmarried couples in serious relationships need to plan for the unknown. Even married same-sex couples may face hostility from family members, including will contests and custody battles over children. There are three key issues to address: inheritance, incapacity and end-of-life care and beneficiary designations.

If a partner in an unmarried relationship dies and there is no will, assets belonging to the decedent pass to their family, which could leave their partner with nothing. With no will, the estate is subject to the laws of intestacy. These laws almost always direct the court to distribute the property based on kinship.

A will establishes an unmarried partner’s right to inherit property from the decedent. It is also used to name a guardian for any minor children. Concern about the will being contested by family members is often addressed by the use of trusts. When property is transferred to a trust, it no longer belongs to the individual, but to the trust. A trustee is named to be in charge of the trust. If the surviving partner is the trustee, he or she has access and control of the trust.

A trust helps to avoid probate, as property does not go through probate. A will also only goes into effect after the person who created the will passes away. A revocable living trust is effective as soon as it is established. Trusts allow for more control of assets before and after you pass. The trustee is legally bound to carry out the precise intentions in the trust document.

Establishing a trust is step one—the next step is funding the trust. If the trust is established but not funded, there is no protection from probate for the assets.

Incapacity and end-of-life planning allows you to make decisions about your care, while you are living. Without it, your unmarried partner could be completely shut out of any decision-making process. Here are the documents needed to convey your wishes in an enforceable manner:

Healthcare power of attorney (proxy). This document allows you to name the person you wish to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. You may be very specific about what treatments and care you want—and those you don’t want.

Healthcare directive. The healthcare directive lets you designate your wishes for end-of-life care or any potentially lifesaving treatments. Do you want to be resuscitated, or to have CPR performed?

Durable financial power of attorney. By designating someone in a financial power of attorney, you give that person the right to conduct all financial and legal matters on your behalf. Note that every state has slightly different laws, and the POA must adhere to your state’s guidelines. You may also make the POA as broad or narrow as you wish. It can give someone the power to handle everything on your behalf or confine them to only one part of your financial life.

Beneficiary designations. Almost all tax-deferred retirement accounts and pensions permit a beneficiary to be named to inherit the assets on the death of the original owner. These accounts do not go through probate. Check on each and every retirement account, insurance policies and even bank accounts. Any account with a beneficiary designation should be reviewed every few years to be sure the correct party is named. Estranged ex-spouses have received more than their fair share of happy surprises, when people neglect to update their beneficiaries after divorce.

Some accounts that may not have a clear beneficiary designation may have the option for a Transfer on Death designation, which helps beneficiaries avoid probate.

Review these steps with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your partner and you have made proper plans to protect each other, even without the legal benefits that marriage bestows.

Reference: The Street (June 2, 2021) “3 Estate Planning Tips for Same-Sex Couples”

Should You Get Medical Power of Attorney?

The pandemic has created awareness that being suddenly incapacitated by an illness or injury is no longer a hypothetical. The last year has reminded us that health is a fragile gift, regardless of age or any medical conditions, explains the article “Now Is the Time to Protect Your Health Care Decision Making Rights” from Kiplinger. Along with this awareness, comes an understanding that having control over our medical decisions is not assured, unless we have a well-considered health care decision-making plan created by an estate planning attorney, while we are well and healthy.

Without such a plan, in the event of incapacity, you will not have the opportunity to convey your wishes or to ensure they will be carried out. This also leaves the family in a terrible situation, where siblings may end up in court fighting against each other to determine what kind of end-of-life care you will receive.

The best way to exercise your medical decision rights will vary to some degree by your state’s laws, but three are three basic solutions to protect you. An estate planning attorney will be needed to prepare these properly, to reflect your wishes and align with your state’s law. Do-it-yourself documents may lead to more problems than they solve.

Living Will. This document is used when you are in an end-stage medical condition or permanently unconscious. It provides clear and written instructions as to the type of treatments you do or do not want to receive, or the treatment you always want to receive in case of incapacity.

Health Care Durable Power of Attorney. The health care durable POA is broader than a living will. It covers health care decisions in all situations, when you are not able to communicate your wishes. You may appoint one or more agents to make health care decisions, which they will base on their personal knowledge of what your decisions would be if you were able to speak. Just realize that if two people are named and they do not agree on the interpretation of your decision, you may have created a problem for yourself and your family. Discuss this with your estate planning attorney.

Health Care Representative Laws. There are laws in place for what occurs if you have not signed a Health Care Durable Power of Attorney or a Living Will before becoming incompetent. They are intended to fill in the gap, by authorizing certain family members to act on your behalf and make health care decisions for you. They are a solution of last resort, and not the equal of your having had the living will and/or health care durable power of attorney created for you.

If the statute names multiple people, like all of your children, there may be a difference of opinion and the children may “vote” on what’s to happen to you. Otherwise, they’ll end up in court.

The more detailed your documents, the better prepared your loved ones will be when decisions need to be made. Share your choices about specific treatments. For instance, would you want to be taken off a ventilator, if you were in a coma with limited brain function and with no hope of recovery? What if there was a slim chance of recovery? The decisions are not easy. Neither is considering such life or death matters.

Regardless of the emotional discomfort, planning for health-care decisions can provide peace of mind for yourself and loved ones.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 29, 2021) “Now Is the Time to Protect Your Health Care Decision Making Rights”

What Do I Need to Know about Estate Planning?

Your idea of planning for the future may include vacations and visits to family and friends—estate planning, not so much. However, it should, advises Real Simple in the article “Everything You Need to Know About Estate Planning—and Why You Should Start Now.” Estate planning concerns decisions about distributing your property when you die, and while that’s not as much fun as planning a trip to an adventure park, it’s become increasing important for adults of all ages.

A survey by caring.com found that the number of young adults with a last will (ages 18-34) increased by 63 percent since 2020. Many tough lessons were learned through the pandemic, and the importance of having an estate plan was one of them.

An estate plan is more than documents for when you die. There are also documents for what should happen, if you become disabled. The last will is one piece of the larger estate plan. An estate plan is also an opportunity to plan for wealth accumulation and building generational wealth, at any level.

Estate planning is for everyone, regardless of their net worth. People with lower incomes actually need estate planning more than the wealthy. There’s less room for error. Estate planning is everything from where you want your money to go, to who will be in charge of it and who will be in charge of your minor children, if you have a young family.

It may be rare for both parents to die at the same time, but it does happen. Your last will is also used to name a guardian to raise your minor children. With no last will, the court will decide who raises them.

If you’ve filled out 401(k) and life insurance paperwork at work, you’ve started estate planning already. Any document that asks you to name a beneficiary in case of your death is part of your estate plan. Be certain to update these documents. Young adults often name their parents and then neglect to change the beneficiaries, when they get married or have children.

For single people, estate planning is more important. If you have no estate plan and no children, everything you own will go to your parents. What if you have a partner or best friend and want them to receive your assets? Without an estate plan, they have no legal rights. An estate planning attorney will know how to plan, so your wishes are followed.

Estate planning includes planning for disability, also known as “incapacity.” If you become too sick to manage your affairs, bills still need to be paid. Who can do that for you? Without an estate plan, a family member will need to go to court to be assigned that role—or someone you don’t even know may be assigned that role. Your last will names an executor to manage your affairs after you die.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to have your last will, Power of Attorney, Medical Power of Attorney and other parts of your estate plan created. The court system and processes are complex, and the laws are different in every state. Trying to do it yourself or using a template that you download, could leave you with an invalid last will, which will cause more problems than it solves.

Reference: Real Simple (May 12, 2021) “Everything You Need to Know About Estate Planning—and Why You Should Start Now”

What Is the Purpose of an Estate Plan?

No one wants to think about becoming seriously ill or dying, but scrambling to get an estate plan and healthcare documents done while in the hospital or nursing home is a bad alternative, says a recent article titled “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan” from Kiplinger. Not having an estate plan in place can create enormous costs for the estate, including taxes, and delay the transfer of assets to heirs.

If you would like to avoid the cost, stress and possibility of your spouse or children having to go to court to get all of this done while you are incapacitated, it is time to have an estate plan created. Here are the basics:

A Will, a Living Will, Power of Attorney and a Beneficiary Check-Up. People think of a will when they think of an estate plan, but that’s only part of the plan. The will gives instructions for what you want to happen to assets, who will be in charge of your estate—the executor—and who will be in charge of any minor children—the guardian. No will? This is known as dying intestate, and probate courts will make all of these decisions for you, based on state law.

However, a will is not enough. Beneficiary designations determine who receives assets from certain types of property. This includes life insurance policies, qualified retirement accounts, annuities, and any account that provides the opportunity to name a beneficiary. These instructions supersede the will, so make sure that they are up to date. If you fail to name a beneficiary, then the asset is considered part of your estate. If you fail to update your beneficiaries, then the person you may have wanted to receive the assets forty years ago will receive it.

Some banks and brokerage accounts may have an option of a Transfer on Death (TOD) agreement. This allows you to plan out asset distribution outside of the will, speeding the distribution of assets.

A Living Will or Advance Directive is used to communicate in advance what you would want to happen if you are alive but unable to make decisions for yourself. It names an agent to make serious medical decisions on your behalf, like being kept on life support or having surgery. Not having the right to make medical decisions for a loved one requires petitioning the court.

Financial Power of Attorney names an attorney in fact to manage finances, paying bills and overseeing investments. Without a POA, your family can’t take action on your financial matters, like paying bills, overseeing the maintenance of your home, etc. If the court appoints a non-family member to manage this task, the family may see the estate evaporate.

Creating a trust is part of most people’s estate plan. A trust is a means of leaving assets for a minor child, or someone who cannot be trusted to manage money. The trust is a legal entity that inherits money when you pass, and a trustee, who you name in the trust documents, manages everything, according to the terms of the trust.

Today’s estate plan needs to include digital assets. You need to give someone legal authority to manage social media accounts, websites, email and any other digital property you own.

The time to create an estate plan, or review and update an existing estate plan, is now. COVID has awakened many people to the inevitability of severe illness and death. Planning for the future today protects the ones you love tomorrow.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 21, 2021) “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan”

Can I Revoke a Power of Attorney?
An concept Image of a power of attorney

Can I Revoke a Power of Attorney?

Spouses and partners chosen by adult children often lead to estate planning challenges. In one case, a parent worries that a second husband may be a poor influence and wants to revoke the power of attorney originally granted to a daughter. How to do that legally and without any hurt feelings is examined in the article Estate Planning: Revoking a power of attorney” from nwi.com.

A Power of Attorney is a document that allows another person to act on your behalf. The person designated is referred to as the “Attorney in Fact” or the “Agent.”

The problem this family faces, is that any revocation of a POA must be in writing, must identify the person who is to be revoked as the POA and must be signed by the person who is revoking the POA. Here’s where the hurt feelings come in: the revocation is not legal, until and unless the agent has actual knowledge of the revocation.

You can’t slip off to your estate planning lawyer’s office, revoke the POA and hope the family member will never know.

Another way to revoke a POA is to execute a new one. In most states, most durable POAs include a provision that the new POA revokes any prior POAs. By executing a new POA that revokes the prior ones, you have a valid revocation that is in writing and signed by the principal.

However, a daughter who is duly appointed must be notified. If she is currently acting under the POA and has a copy of it, there’s no way to avoid her learning of the parent’s decision.

If, however, the daughter has never seen a copy of the POA and she is not currently acting on it, then you may be able to make a new POA without notifying her. However, it may create a sticky situation in the future. Notification may be your only option.

If the POA has been recorded for any reason, the revocation must reference the book, page and instrument number assigned by the recorder’s office and be recorded. If the POA has been provided to any individuals or financial institutions, such as banks, life insurance companies, financial advisors, etc., they will need to be properly notified that it has been revoked or replaced.

Two cautions: not telling the daughter and having her find out after the parent has passed or is incapacitated might be a painful blow, with no resolution. Telling the daughter while the parent can discuss the change may be challenging but reaching an understanding will at least be possible. A diplomatic approach is best: the parent wishes to adjust her estate plan and the attorney made some recommendations, this revocation among them, should suffice.

Not revoking the power of attorney correctly could also lead to an estate planning disaster, with the daughter challenging whoever was named as the POA without her knowledge.

Talk with your estate planning lawyer to ensure that the POA is changed properly, and that all POAs have been updated.

Reference: nwi.com (March 7, 2021) “Estate Planning: Revoking a power of attorney”

It Is Important to have a Digital Estate Plan

Just as you organize your physical possessions and financial accounts, you need to organize and plan for your digital estate. Otherwise, according to the recent article “Why You Need a Digital Estate Plan and How to Make One” from Next Avenue, you will leave a giant mess for your family.

Nearly 50 states have already passed laws that give a person’s family or their executor the right to access and manage some of their digital assets after they die. However, if the digital platform does not allow an executor or anyone to access and manage accounts, the problem will not be easily resolved.

Facebook has created a “Legacy Contact” and Google has an “Inactive Account Manager,” but they only work if you take the time to go through the process in advance. Sharing passwords and instructions or setting up an online password manager may or may not solve the problem for the 200 other accounts. Why?

Increasing security means that many accounts require confirmation codes, typically sent to a mobile phone or email address, before an account may be accessed. If the phone or email is locked, then access will be impossible. Two-factor authentication makes it harder for digital criminals to access your accounts, but it also makes it difficult for heirs and executors. Some people have taken a step into the future to have their accounts opened via facial recognition. How then do you access accounts?

Not all digital accounts and services have the same requirements for access.

Here is a way to think about your digital estate: what is the level of importance for each account? If it were deleted and all contents removed, how would it impact your life? Is it a “single sign on,” where credentials are needed to log into other accounts? Are there payment methods attached to the account, like automatic withdrawals or credit cards?

Many accounts may be dormant, like an old email address you stopped using ten years ago. However, what about the important accounts that are central to the business of your life, like checking and savings accounts, or personal email?

Tech giants like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple have made their way into many aspects of our lives. If you have a library of ebooks, or an online gaming presence with digital assets, would you wish to maintain those assets? Think about all the autopayment accounts that you have—and how much money your estate would lose if those accounts could not be shut down.

Once you have identified all of your important accounts, examine them one by one to see what if they have a legacy process. Then start thinking about what you would like to happen to the accounts and their contents, in case of your incapacity or death. Having a digital estate plan today is not futuristic at all—it’s how we live, and our estate plans should be updated accordingly.

Your estate planning attorney will know what your state’s laws are for digital assets, just as they do for more traditional assets.

Last word: do not include your usernames or passwords in your will. A will becomes a public document upon probate, and this information must be protected from identity thieves if the accounts are to remain secure.

Reference: Next Avenue (Jan. 1, 2021) “Why You Need a Digital Estate Plan and How to Make One”