Digital Assets Need to Be Protected In Estate Plans

Most people have an extensive network of digital relationships with retailers, financial institutions and even government agencies. Companies and institutions, from household utilities to grocery delivery services have invested millions in making it easier for consumers to do everything online—and the coronavirus has made our online lives take a giant leap. As a result, explains the article “Supporting Your Clients’ Digital Legacy” from Bloomberg Tax, practically all estates now include digital assets, a new class of assets that hold both financial and sentimental value.

In the last year, there has been a growing number of reports of the number of profiles of people who have died but whose pages are still alive on Facebook, Linked In and similar platforms. Taking down profiles, preserving photos and gaining access to URLs are all part of managing a digital footprint that needs to be planned for as part of an estate plan.

There are a number of laws that could impact a user’s digital estate during life and death. Depending upon the asset and how it is used, determines what happens to it after the owner dies. Fiduciary access laws outline what the executor or attorney is allowed to do with digital assets, and the law varies from one country to another. In the US, almost all states have adopted a version of RUFADAA, the law created by the U.S. Uniform Law Commission. However, all digital assets are also subject to the Terms of Service Agreement (TOSAs) that we click on when signing up for a new app or software. The TOSA may not permit anyone but the account owner to gain access to the account or the assets in the account.

Digital assets are virtual and may be difficult to find without a paper trail. Leaving passwords for the fiduciary seems like the simple solution, but passwords don’t convey user wishes. What if the executor tries to get into an account and is blocked? Unauthorized access, even with a password, is still violating the terms of the TOSAs.

People need to plan for digital assets, just as they do any other asset. Here are some of the questions to consider:

  • What will happen to digital assets with financial value, like loyalty points, travel rewards, cryptocurrency, gaming tokens or the digital assets of a business?
  • Who will be able to get digital assets with sentimental value, like photos, videos and social media accounts?
  • What about privacy and cybersecurity concerns, and identity theft?

What will happen to your digital assets? Facebook and Google offer Legacy Contact and Inactive Manager, online tools they provide to designate third-party account access. Some, but not many, other online platforms have similar tools in place. The best way, for now, may be to make a list of all of your digital accounts and look through them for death or incapacity instructions. It may not be a complete solution, but it’s at least a start.

Reference: Bloomberg Tax (April 10, 2020) “Supporting Your Clients’ Digital Legacy”

The Second Most Powerful Estate Planning Document: Power of Attorney

All too often, people wait until it’s too late to execute a power of attorney. It’s uncomfortable to think about giving someone full access to our finances, while we are still competent. However, a power of attorney can be created that is fully exercisable only when needed, according to a useful article “Power of attorney can be tailored to circumstances” from The News-Enterprise. Some estate planning attorneys believe that the power of attorney, or POA, is actually the second most important estate planning document after a will. Here’s what a POA can do for you.

The term POA is a reference to the document, but it also is used to refer to the person named as the agent in the document.

Generally speaking, any POA creates a fiduciary relationship, for either legal or financial purposes. A Medical or Healthcare POA creates a relationship for healthcare decisions. Sometimes these are for a specific purpose or for a specific period of time. However, a Durable POA is created to last until death or until it is revoked. It can be created to cover a wide array of needs.

Here’s the critical fact: a POA of any kind needs to be executed, that is, agreed to and signed by a person who is competent to make legal decisions. The problem occurs when family members or spouse do not realize they need a POA, until their loved one is not legally competent and does not understand what they are signing.

Incompetent or incapacitated individuals may not sign legal documents. Further, the law protects people from improperly signing, by requiring two witnesses to observe the individual signing.

The law does allow those with limited competency to sign estate planning documents, so long as they are in a moment of lucidity at the time of the signing. However, this is tricky and can be dangerous, as legal issues may be raised for all involved, if capacity is challenged later on.

If someone has become incompetent and has not executed a valid power of attorney, a loved one will need to apply for guardianship. This is a court process that is expensive, takes several months and leads to the court being involved in many aspects of the person’s life. The basics of this process: three professionals are needed to personally assess the “respondent,” the person who is said to be incompetent. The respondent loses all rights to make decisions of any kind for themselves. They also lose the right to vote.

A power of attorney can be executed quickly and does not require the person to lose any rights.

The biggest concern to executing a power of attorney, is that the person is giving an agent the control of their money and property. This is true, but the POA can be created so that it does not hand over this control immediately.

This is where the “springing” power of attorney comes in. Springing POA means that the document, while executed immediately, does not become effective for use by the agent, until a certain condition is met. The document can be written that the POA becomes in effect, if the person is deemed mentally incompetent by a doctor. The springing clause gives the agent the power to act if and when it is necessary for someone else to take over the individual’s affairs.

Having an estate planning attorney create the power of attorney that is best suited for each individual’s situation is the most sensible way to provide the protection of a POA, without worrying about giving up control while one is competent.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 24, 2020) “Power of attorney can be tailored to circumstances”

Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples

For some couples, getting married just doesn’t feel necessary. However, they don’t enjoy the automatic legal rights and protections that legally wed spouses do, especially when it comes to death. There are many spousal rights that come with a marriage certificate, reports CNBC in the article “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die.” Without the benefit of marriage, extra planning is necessary to protect each other.

Taxes are a non-starter. There’s no federal or state income tax form that will permit a non-married couple to file jointly. If one of the couple’s employers is the source of health insurance for both, the amount that the company contributes is taxable to the employee. A spouse doesn’t have to pay taxes on health insurance.

More important, however, is what happens when one of the partners dies or becomes incapacitated. A number of documents need to be created, so should one become incapacitated, the other is able to act on their behalf. Preparations also need to be made, so the surviving partner is protected and can manage the deceased’s estate.

In order to be prepared, an estate plan is necessary. Creating a plan for what happens to you and your estate is critical for unmarried couples who want their commitment to each other to be protected at death. The general default for a married couple is that everything goes to the surviving spouse. However, for unmarried couples, the default may be a sibling, children, parents or other relatives. It won’t be the unmarried partner.

This is especially true, if a person dies with no will. The courts in the state of residence will decide who gets what, depending upon the law of that state. If there are multiple heirs who have conflicting interests, it could become nasty—and expensive.

However, a will isn’t all that is needed.

Most tax-advantaged accounts—Roth IRAs, traditional IRAs, 401(k) plans, etc.—have beneficiaries named. That person receives the assets upon death of the owner. The same is true for investment accounts, annuities, life insurance and any financial product that has a beneficiary named. The beneficiary receives the asset, regardless of what is in the will. Therefore, checking beneficiaries need to be part of the estate plan.

Checking, savings and investment accounts that are in both partner’s names will become the property of the surviving person, but accounts with only one person’s name on them will not. A Transfer on Death (TOD) or Payable on Death (POD) designation should be added to any single-name accounts.

Unmarried couples who own a home together need to check how the deed is titled, regardless who is on the mortgage. The legal owner is the person whose name is on the deed. If the house is only in one person’s name, it won’t become part of the estate. Change the deed so both names are on the deed with rights of survivorship, so both are entitled to assume full ownership upon the death of the other.

To prepare for incapacity, an estate planning attorney can help create a durable power of attorney for health care, so partners will be able to make medical decisions on each other’s behalf. A living will should also be created for both people, which states wishes for end of life decisions. For financial matters, a durable power of attorney will allow each partner to have control over each other’s financial affairs.

It takes a little extra planning for unmarried couples, but the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you have prepared to care for each other, until death do you part, is priceless.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 16, 2019) “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die”

Everyone Should Have a Power of Attorney and Healthcare Power of Attorney

Before snowbirds begin their seasonal journey to warmer climates, it’s time to be sure that they have the important legal documents in place, advises LimaOhio.com in a recent article “Different seasons and documents, same peace of mind.” The two documents are a healthcare power of attorney and a financial power of attorney, and they should be prepared and be ready to be used at any time.

These documents name another person to make healthcare and financial decisions, in case you are not able to make those decisions for yourself. We never think that anything will really happen to us, until it does. Having these documents properly prepared and easily accessible helps our loved ones. They are the ones who will need the powers given by the documents. Without them, they cannot act in a timely manner.

If traveling between a home state and a winter home, it is wise to have a set of documents that align with the laws of both states. It may be necessary to have a separate set of documents for each state, if the laws differ.

Financial powers of attorney typically need updating more often than healthcare powers of attorney. The law has changed in recent years, and there are a number of specific powers that need to be stated precisely, so that the document can grant those powers. This includes the power to gift assets and make a person eligible for nursing home and other healthcare assistance, like Medicaid.

If these documents are not in place and are needed, the only way that someone else can make decisions for the person, is to become a guardian of that person. That includes spouses. Many people think that the fact that two people are married gives them every right, but that is not the case. Guardianship takes considerably more time and costs more than these two documents. It should be noted that once guardianship is established, the person who is the guardian will need to report to the court on a regular basis.

Another document that needs to be in place is a living will or advance directive. This is a document prepared to instruct others as to your wishes for end-of-life care. The document is created when a person is mentally competent and expresses their wishes for what they want to happen, if they are being kept alive by artificial means. For loved ones, this document is a blessing, as it lets them know very clearly what their family members wishes are.

Peace of mind is a wonderful thing to take with you as you prepare for a warm winter in a different climate. Talk with an estate planning attorney to be sure that your estate planning documents will be acceptable in your winter home.

Reference: LimaOhio.com (Oct. 26, 2019) “Different seasons and documents, same peace of mind”

Steps to Take as a Parent’s Condition Takes a Turn

An 80-year-old man had seizures several months ago. He was treated in the hospital and since then, has had some lapses in short-term memory. His long-term memory is okay, but he is not retaining day-to-day matters very well. His awareness of a loss of some functionality has left him frustrated and a little depressed, as described in the article “Dear Counselor: Need options as father’s condition worsens” from the Davis Enterprise. The use of some antidepressants and medication has been helpful, and he seems better. However, what should the children be doing, at this time, to prepare for what may come next?

The children should make arrangements to have their parents go see an estate planning attorney soon. The fact that only the wife is power of attorney, and that the forms have not been updated in many years is cause for serious concern. While their mom may be capable right now of handling his personal and financial affairs, the stress of caretaking for her husband is likely to take its toll on her. If the father’s condition deteriorates, she will likely need help. If for some reason she’s unable to act, then it will be far better if the children, or one of the children, has the legal right to step in.

The first question is whether the father has the legal capacity to create new powers of attorney for financial management and health care. To execute a power of attorney, a person must have mental capacity. The legal standard for this is the same as it is for someone signing a contract: the person must understand and appreciate the consequences of the document being signed.

There are four broad categories of mental deficits that impact a person’s capacity: alertness and attention, information processing, thought processes and the ability to modulate mood. Short-term memory problems and depression may be considered deficits in both information processing and mood. However, that is only one part of the analysis.

Most estate planning attorneys will suggest that any client whose mental capacity may be questionable, should obtain a note from their treating physician that they are capable of understanding and signing legal documents. This is not a legal requirement, but it will help if there is a challenge to the documents he signed, and someone claims that he lacked capacity.

If the father indeed has capacity to execute a new power of attorney, then the adult children can be identified as alternates to the wife. If she is not able to act as an agent, then the siblings will be able to step up. However, if he is unable to execute a new power of attorney, the previous power of attorney would be the operative document. If for some reason, the wife is unable to perform as his agent, there is no one to serve as a backup.

In that case, a petition would need to be filed in the probate court to have a child or children appointed conservator. While that would give the child(ren) the same power as a power of attorney, they will also need to report to the court on an on-going basis. Conservatorship proceedings are expensive and time-consuming and should be a last resort.

These problems rarely get better over time. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney as soon as possible to prepare for the future.

Reference: Davis Enterprise (Oct. 2019) “Dear Counselor: Need options as father’s condition worsens”

Do It Yourself Estate Planning Leads to Bad Outcomes

While the attraction of simplicity and low cost is appealing, the results are all too often disastrous, affirms Insurance News in the article “Mind Your Mouse Clicks: DIY Estate Planning War Stories.” The increasing number of glitches that estate planning attorneys are seeing after the fact has increased, as much as the number of people using online estate planning forms. For estate planning attorneys who are concerned about their clients and their families, the disasters are troubling.

A few clumsy mouse clicks can derail an estate plan and adversely affect the family. Here are five real life examples.

Details matter. One of the biggest and most routinely made mistakes in DIY estate planning goes hand-in-hand with simple wills, where both spouses want to leave everything to each other. Except this typical couple neglected something. See if you can figure out what they did wrong:

John’s will: I leave everything to my wife Phyllis.

Phyllis’ will: I leave everything to my wife Phyllis.

Unless John dies and Phyllis marries someone named Phyllis, this will is not going to work. It seems like a simple enough error, but the courts are not forgiving of errors.

Life insurance mistakes. Jeff owns a life insurance policy and has been using its cash value as a “rainy day” fund. He had intended to swap the life insurance into his irrevocable grantor trust in exchange for low-basis stock held in the trust. The swap would remove the life insurance from Jeff’s estate without exposure to the estate tax three-year rule, and the stock would receive a stepped-up basis at death, leading to tax savings on both sides of the swap.

However, Jeff had a stroke recently, and he’s incapacitated. He planned ahead though, or so he thought. He downloaded a free durable power of attorney form from a nonprofit that helps the elderly. The POA specifically included the power to change ownership of his life insurance.

Jeff put his name in the space designated for the POA. As a result, the insurance company won’t accept the form, and the swap isn’t going to happen.

Incomplete documents. Ellen created an online will leaving her entire probate estate to her husband. It was fast, cheap and she was delighted. However, she forgot to click on the space where the executor is named. The website address for the website company is the default information in the form, which is what was created when she completed the will. The court is not likely to appoint the website as her executor. Her heirs are stuck, unless she corrects this, hoping the court will understand. Hope is a terrible estate plan.

Letting the form define the estate plan. Single parent Joan has a 6-year-old son. Her will includes a standard trust for minors, providing income and principal for her son until he turns 21, at which point he inherits everything. Joan met with a life insurance advisor and applied for a $1 million convertible 20–year term life insurance policy. It will be payable to the trust. However, her son has autism, and receives government benefits. There are no special needs provisions in her will, so her son is at risk of losing any benefits, if and when he inherits the policy proceeds.

Don’t set it and forget it. One couple created online wills, when the estate tax exclusion was $2 million. They created a credit shelter, or bypass, trust to reduce their estate taxes, by allowing each of them to use their estate tax exclusion amount. However, the federal estate tax exclusion today is $11.4 million per person. With $4 million in separate assets and a $2 million life insurance policy payable to children from a previous marriage, the husband’s separate assets will go into the bypass trust. None of it will go to his wife.

An experienced estate planning attorney who is licensed to practice in your state is the best source for creating and updating estate plans, preparing for incapacity and ensuring that tax planning is done efficiently.

Reference: Insurance News Net (Sep. 9, 2019) “Mind Your Mouse Clicks: DIY Estate Planning War Stories”

 

Succession Planning For Business Owners
Asset Growth Concept - Coins in the jar

Succession Planning For Business Owners

A business owner without an estate plan, is a business owner whose business and personal estate are both in jeopardy, says the Augusta Free Press in an article that asks “Own a business? 5 reasons you need an estate plan.”

You need more than a will to plan for incapacity. If you become ill or incapacitated, a will isn’t the estate planning tool that will help you and your family. What you need is a power of attorney (POA). This document names another individual or individuals to manage your finances and your business dealings, while you are unable to do so. Your estate planning attorney can create a power of attorney that limits what the named person, known as an “agent” may do on your behalf, or make it a broad POA so they can do anything they deem necessary.

Your state’s estate plan may not align with your wishes. Every state has its own laws about property distribution in the event a person does not have an estate plan. A popular joke among estate planning attorneys is that if you don’t have an estate plan, your state has one for you—but you may not like it. This is particularly important for business owners. If you have a sibling who you haven’t spoken to in decades, depending upon the laws of your state, that sibling may be first in line for your assets and your business. If that makes you worried, it should.

Caring for a disabled family member. A family that includes individuals with special needs who receive government benefits requires a specific type of estate planning, known as Special Needs Planning. This includes the use of trusts, so a trust owns assets the assets for the benefit of such a family member without putting government benefits at risk.

 

Help yourself and heirs with tax liability. If your future plan includes leaving your business to your children or another family member, there will be taxes due. What if they don’t have the resources to pay taxes on the business and have to sell it in a fire sale just to satisfy the tax bill? An estate plan, worked out with an experienced estate planning attorney who regularly works with family-owned businesses, will include a comprehensive tax plan. Make sure your heirs understand this plan—you may want to bring them with you to a family meeting with the attorney, so everyone is on the same page.

Avoid fracturing your own family. An unhappy truth is that when there is no estate plan, it impacts not just the family business. If some children or family members are involved in the business and others are not, the ones who work in the business may resent having to share any of the business. How to divide your business is up to the business owner. However, making a good plan in advance with the guidance of an experienced advisor and communicating the plan to family members will prevent the family from falling apart.

There’s no way to know how family members will respond when a parent dies. Sometimes death brings out the best in people, and sometimes it brings out the worst. However, by having an estate plan and business plan for the future, you can preclude some of the stresses and strains on the family.

Reference: Augusta Free Press (August 13, 2019) “Own a business? 5 reasons you need an estate plan.”