How to Organize Digital Assets

Did you ever wonder what happens to old emails, videos, or photos when people die? Some family stories become headlines, when families battle with big tech firms to get their loved one’s photos or business records. Today, you need to plan for “digital assets,” as explained in a recent article “Don’t leave grieving relatives searching for your passwords: Here’s how to organize your digital life before you die” from USA Today.

Your digital life includes far more than your photos or business records. It includes financial accounts, like PayPal or Venmo, websites, videogames, online investment portfolios, social media, online video games and anything for which you need a password.

Social media accounts that are not closed down or deleted when someone dies, are at risk of being taken over by cybercriminals, who use the accounts to get access to financial accounts and use the decedent’s identity to commit crimes across the internet.

Start by making a list of all of your accounts, including account numbers, usernames and passwords. If the account has two-factor authentication, you’ll need to include that information as well. If the account uses biometrics, like a facial scan, you’ll need to find out from the platform itself how you can create a directive to allow another person to gain access to the account.

Your will needs to reflect the existence of digital assets and name a person who will be your digital executor. Many states have passed legislation concerning how digital assets are treated in estate planning, so check with your estate planning attorney to learn what your state’s requirements are.

In many cases, the best option is to use the platform’s own account tools for digital assets. Google, Facebook, PayPal, and a number of other sites offer the ability to name a legacy contact who will be able to gain some access to an account, to access the information and to delete the account in the event of your death.

One big issue in digital estate planning is that some platforms automatically delete accounts and their contents, if the account is inactive for a certain amount of time. Content may be lost forever, if the proper steps are not taken.

Some financial advisors maintain online portals, where their clients may store important documents that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. This may be an option, in addition to keeping a list of digital assets in the same location where you keep your estate planning documents.  We all live in a digital world now, and when a person dies, it’s challenging to locate all of their accounts and gain access to their contents. Your grandchildren may be able to figure out some workarounds, but it would be much easier if digital assets were part of the conversation you had with your children when discussing your estate plan.

Reference: USA Today (Nov. 25, 2020) “Don’t leave grieving relatives searching for your passwords: Here’s how to organize your digital life before you die”

 

Zappos CEO had No Will and That Is a Mistake

Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who built the giant online retailer Zappos based on “delivering happiness,” died at age 46 from complications of smoke inhalation from a house fire. He left an estate worth an estimated $840 million and no will, according to the article “Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh died without a will, reports say. Here’s why you should plan for your own death” from CNBC.

Without a will or an estate plan, his family will never know exactly how he wanted his estate to be distributed. The family has asked a judge to name Hsieh’s father and brother as special administrators of his estate.

How can someone with so much wealth not have an estate plan? Hsieh probably thought he had plenty of time to “get around to it.” However, we never know when we are going to die, and unexpected accidents and illnesses happen all the time.

Why would someone who is not wealthy need to have an estate plan? It is even more important when there are fewer assets to be distributed. When a person dies with no will, the family may be faced with unexpected and overwhelming expenses.

Putting an estate plan in place, including a will, power of attorney and health care proxy, makes it far easier for a family that might otherwise become ensnared in fights about what their loved one might have wanted. Reaching out to an estate planning attorney should have been done.

An estate plan is about making things easier for your loved ones, as much as it is about distributing your assets.

What Does a Will Do? A will is the document that explains who you want to receive your assets when you die. It can be extremely specific, detailing what items you wish to leave to an individual, or more general, saying that your surviving spouse should get everything.

If you have no will, a state court may decide who receives your assets, and if you have minor children, the court will decide who will raise your children.

Some assets pass outside the will, including accounts with beneficiary designations. That can include tax deferred retirement accounts, life insurance policies and property owned jointly. The person named as the beneficiary will receive the assets in the accounts, regardless of what your will says. The law requires your current spouse to receive the assets in your 401(k) account, unless your spouse has signed a document that agrees otherwise.

If there are no beneficiaries listed on these non-will items, or if the beneficiary is deceased and there is no contingent beneficiary, then those assets automatically go into probate. The process can take months or a year or more under state law, depending on how complicated your estate is.

Naming an Executor. Part of making a will includes selecting a person who will carry out your instructions—the executor. This can be a big responsibility, depending upon the size and complexity of the estate. They are in charge of making sure assets go to beneficiaries, paying outstanding debts, paying taxes for you and your estate and even selling your home. Select someone who is trustworthy, reliable and good with finances.

Your estate plan also includes a power of attorney for someone to handle financial and legal affairs, if you become incapacitated. An advance health-care directive, or living will, is used to explain your wishes, if you are being kept alive by life support. Otherwise, your loved ones will not know if you want to be kept alive or if you would prefer to be allowed to die.

Having an estate plan is a kindness to your family. Don’t wait until it’s too late to take care of it. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 3, 2020) “Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh died without a will, reports say. Here’s why you should plan for your own death”

 

What Should I Know about a Living Trust?

A will and a living trust both can be very important in your estate plan. However, a living trust doesn’t require probate to transfer your assets.

KYT24’s recent article entitled “Fundamentals Of A Living Trust” explains that everyone who owns a home and/or other assets should have a will or a living trust. Proper estate planning can protect your family from unnecessary court costs and delay, if you become incapacitated, disabled, or die.

With a living trust, you can avoid all probate delays and related costs and make life much simpler for your family in a crisis. If you pass away, your spouse will be able to automatically and immediately continue without any delay or unnecessary expense.When you and your spouse both die, your assets will also transfer directly to your beneficiaries.

Living trusts can save time, expense and stress for your loved ones. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a living trust.

A trust agreement, being a legal document, must be written by an experienced estate planning attorney who has the knowledge and experience to prepare such a legal document to cover all of your needs and desires. If not properly and completely drafted, you run the risk of issues after you’re gone for your family.

After your attorney drafts your living trust, you must fund the trust, by titling or adding assets to it. If assets aren’t titled to or otherwise connected to your trust agreement, they won’t be legally part of the trust.  This totally defeats the purpose of drafting your living trust agreement in the first place.

It’s a common mistake to fail to fund a trust, which can happen as a result of poor follow through after signing the trust.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to complete a living trust and your entire estate plan. This includes a thorough review of your goals and objectives, as well as reviewing all estate assets to complete the funding of your trust, by transferring assets into the name of the living trust.

Reference: KYT24 (Nov. 14, 2020) “Fundamentals Of A Living Trust”

 

What are the Basic Estate Planning Documents?

Having a well-prepared estate plan means that you have a plan in place to distribute your home, assets and possessions. However, the estate plan does more, says the article “Trustee Tips: Estate Planning Basics” from Wilmington Biz Insights: it also gives your family the insight and legally enforceable directions to follow, so they may honor your wishes.

Estate planning eliminates uncertainty and maximizes the value of the estate, by streamlining the transfer of assets to beneficiaries and minimizing estate tax liability. In addition, estate planning protects your estate and your family from mismanagement, creditor claims or claims from people or companies outside of the family.

Many people equate estate planning with owning a large home and significant wealth, but that’s not true. An estate includes everything people own: their personal residence, retirement accounts, insurance policies, investments and possessions.

A case can be made that estate planning is more important for people with a modest estate to preserve and protect what assets they have, versus a large estate where the family enjoys a large cushion against poverty.  The basic estate planning documents are a last will and testament, trusts, financial power of attorney, health care power of attorney and a living will.

A Last Will and Testament provides instructions to the probate court of the decedent’s final wishes, including naming an executor to carry out the instructions. It also contains instructions on who will raise minor children by naming a guardian. This document, and any other documents filed with the probate court, become part of the public record, and can be accessed by anyone who wishes to see them.

A Revocable Trust also provides instructions but avoids probate. The trust creates a legal entity that owns assets (once they are retitled and placed in the trust). The individual who creates a revocable trust remains in control of the assets, as long as they are alive. The revocable trust can be changed at any time.

A Pour-Over Will is used with a revocable trust. It ensures that any assets not included in the Revocable Trust are “poured-over” into the trust upon death, protecting them from the probate process and keeping your wishes private.

A financial Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney are documents used to give control of legal and financial affairs and health care decisions, in the event of incapacity.

The Living Will provides directions to designated persons, usually family members, about what kind of medical care is desired in the event of an inability to communicate. This is a gift to loved ones, who would otherwise be left guessing what the person would wish. A HIPAA release should also be prepared to allow doctors to discuss medical matters with the Health Care Power of Attorney.

An estate plan is a way to protect the family’s well-being, not just distributing property and minimizing taxes. A well-crafted estate plan, created for the family’s unique situation, helps avoid family fights, litigation within and outside of the family and provides direction for the next generation. If you do not have an estate plan yet, contact a local estate planning attorney.

Reference: Wilmington Biz Insights (Nov. 17, 2020) “Trustee Tips: Estate Planning Basics”

 

What Questions Keep Pre-Retirees Awake at Night?

As we get to the final part of our careers, thoughts of how retirement will look can create mixed emotions. For many, it will be a time to dream about doing those things on their bucket list, such as traveling abroad, learning a hobby, making memories with grandchildren, or pursuing a new business venture.

However, for others, it may be a time of stress and uncertainly because of the extent to which our identity has been tied to our career success and advancement. The routines and structures we’ve followed for years will end, and we face a new reality.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “4 Questions That Keep Most Pre-Retirees Awake at Night” explains that for many people coming to this next phase of life, there are four questions that will keep them awake at night. Knowing the answers to these four questions, can give confidence to those who are prepared to make this a smooth transition.

Exactly When Can I Retire? With the traditional pension becoming a thing of the past, the answer may not be so obvious. We also can’t overlook the emotional piece of retirement. Research shows that the happiest people in retirement will be retiring to something, instead of retiring from something. Several pursuits in retirement can bring purpose and meaning to daily life. As you near retirement, consider what pursuits you may enjoy and allow yourself to look forward to getting started.

Will I Have Enough Money? What’s the “magic number” that makes it appropriate to retire? However, more importantly, what is your “magic number.” This may be tied emotionally to a vision you’ve had your entire career, like accumulating $1 million or paying off your mortgage. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Start by creating a retirement budget and understand what percentage of your monthly expenses can be covered by fixed sources of income, like your Social Security, pension and investments. The closer this percentage is to 100, the better. You should also be certain that you parse out the purpose of your money and specifically dedicate it to things, like creating monthly income, covering future health care costs and growth to outpace inflation. If you do this, you’ll be better able to allocate your portfolio appropriately among various tools, such as savings, investments, annuities and life insurance, etc..

Will My Nest Egg Last Throughout Retirement? A major issue for retirees is having negative returns in their investment portfolio during their early years of retirement. Unlike your working years, when you may have been contributing money to your retirement plan on a regular basis, the opposite may now happen. Monthly withdrawals may be needed to generate needed income. This is referred to as a Sequence of Returns Risk, where the order in which the annual returns hit a portfolio matters significantly. The best way to manage this risk is to avoid taking systematic distributions from a fluctuating account. Earmark a portion of your portfolio to create the monthly income needed to cover fixed expenses that are beyond what your Social Security and your pension will provide. Once you have this, you’re ready to see what combination of investments and insurance tools are right for you.

Will My Family Be OK? If you die, will your spouse be OK and able to carry on? It’s essential to be sure that both spouses are comfortable with the finances and how decisions on investing and retirement have been made. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney if you have not created an estate plan yet.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 29, 2020) “4 Questions That Keep Most Pre-Retirees Awake at Night”

 

Elder Financial Abuse on the Rise during Pandemic

The same isolation that is keeping seniors safe during the pandemic is also making them easier targets for scammers, reports WKYC in a news report “Northeast Ohio family warns of elder financial exploitation during the pandemic.” While this report concerns a family in Ohio, seniors and families across the country are facing the same challenges.

Two brothers enjoyed spending their time together throughout their lives. However, for the last three years, one of them, Michael Pekar, has been trying to undo a neighbor’s theft of his brother Ronnie’s estate. A few months before Ronnie died from cancer, a neighbor got involved with his finances, gained Power of Attorney and began stealing Ronnie’s life savings.

The money, more than a million dollars, had been saved for the sons by their mother. Pekar went to see an estate planning attorney, who helped uncover a sum of about $1.6 million that had been transferred from Ronnie into other accounts. A civil complaint was filed against the woman and $700,000 was eventually recovered, but nearly $1 million will never be recovered.

How can you prevent this from happening to your loved ones, especially those who are isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic?

An elderly person who is isolated is vulnerable. Long stretches of time without family contact make them eager for human connection. If someone new suddenly inserts themselves into your loved one’s life, consider it a red flag. Are new people taking over tasks of bill paying, or driving them to a bank, lawyer, or financial professional’s office? It might start out as a genuine offer of help but may not end that way.

The possible financial abuser does not have to be a stranger. In most cases, family members, like nieces, nephews or other relatives, prey on the isolated elderly person. The red flag is a sudden interest that was never there before.

Changes to legal or financial documents are a warning sign, especially if those documents have gone missing. Unexpected trips to attorneys you don’t know or switching financial advisors without discussing changes with children are another sign that something is happening. So are changes to email addresses and phone numbers. If your elderly aunt who calls every Thursday at 3 pm stops calling, or you can’t reach her, someone may be controlling her communications.  According to the CDC, about one in ten adults over age 60 are abused, neglected, or financially exploited.

Be sure to check in more frequently on elderly family members during the pandemic because increased isolation can lead them to rely on others, making them vulnerable to abuse.

Reference: WKYC (Nov. 19, 2020) “Northeast Ohio family warns of elder financial exploitation during the pandemic.”

 

It’s Time to Stop Procrastinating and Have Your Estate Plan Done

While many people have had their wills updated or created in response to the pandemic, millions of Americans have yet to do so, reports the article “How to Stop Stalling On Getting a Will and Estate Plan” from AARP Magazine. The main reasons for the big stall? They haven’t “gotten around to it,” or, they think they don’t have enough assets to leave to anyone and don’t need a will. Neither reason is valid.

Estate Plans Protect Us During Life. A will is a legal document used to distribute assets after death. It saves families from unnecessary costs and stresses resulting from intestacy, which is what having no will is called. However, there are more documents to an estate plan than just a will. One is a health care directive, often called a living will. This document names someone of your choosing to make medical decisions for you if you are unable. It is also used to outline the kind of medical treatments you do or do not want.

Imagine your family faced with making the decision of keeping you on a heart and lung machine or pulling the plug and letting you die. Would they know what you want them to do? Without a living will, they have to make a decision, and hope it’s the one you would have wanted. That’s quite a burden to put on your loved ones, especially since there is a simple way for you to convey your wishes in a legally enforceable manner.

You also Need a Power of Attorney. A financial power of attorney appoints a person of your choosing to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf, if you are incapacitated. This is an important document and can be created to be as broad or as narrow as you want. You can provide the direction for someone—a trusted, responsible adult—to manage finances, including paying bills, managing a portfolio, paying a mortgage and generally taking over the business of your life. Without it, your family will need to go to court to obtain a guardianship and/or conservatorship to take care of these matters.

Estate Planning Requires Hard Conversations. When people say they “haven’t gotten around” to doing their wills, what they are really thinking is “This is too unpleasant a topic for me” or “I can’t bring myself to have this conversation with my children.” Death and sickness are uncomfortable topics, and most people find it painful to discuss them with their spouses and their children.

However, imagine the great relief you will feel when your loved ones know what your wishes are for sickness and death. You can also imagine the relief they will have in knowing that you took the time give them the tools needed to deal with whatever the future will bring.

Joint Wills are Never a Good Idea. A joint will can leave a surviving spouse in a terrible legal and financial situation. They are not even valid in certain states. They can restrict a surviving spouse from changing the instructions of the will, which could create all kinds of hardships. Circumstances change, and a joint will won’t allow for that. Most couples opt for a “Mirror” will, where they leave the estate to each other and/or their children.

Blended Families Need Special Treatment. If your family is made up of children from different parents, it is important to understand that stepchildren are not treated the same as children by the law. You may love your stepchildren as if they were your own, but unless you specifically name them in the will, they will not be included. Your estate planning attorney will know how to address this issue.

A few final thoughts: estate planning laws of each state are different, so you should meet with an estate planning attorney who practices in your state. The Power of Attorney and Health Care Directives should name the people who you feel will carry out your wishes and can be trusted to do as you want. The person does not have to be the oldest male child. They don’t even have to be related to you, as long as the person you choose is trustworthy, responsible and good with managing money and details. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney now.

Reference: AARP Magazine (Nov. 12, 2020) “How to Stop Stalling On Getting a Will and Estate Plan”

 

Is Probate Required If There Is a Surviving Spouse?

Probate also called “estate administration,” is the management and final settlement of a deceased person’s estate. It is conducted by an executor, also known as a personal representative, who is nominated in the will and approved by the court. Estate administration needs to be done when there are assets subject to probate, regardless of whether there is a will, says the article “Probating your spouse’s will” from The Huntsville Item.

Probate is the formal process of administering a person’s estate. In the absence of a will, probate also establishes heirs. In some regions, this is a quick and easy process while in others it is a lengthy, complex and expensive process. The complexity depends upon the size and value of the estate, whether a proper estate plan was prepared by an estate planning attorney for the decedent prior to death and if there are family members or others who might contest the will.  Family dynamics can cause a tremendous amount of complications and delays, especially if the family has blended children from prior marriages or if a child has predeceased their parents.

There are some exceptions, when the estate is extremely small and when probate is not required. However, in most cases, it is required.

A recent District Court case ruled that a will not admitted to probate is not effective for proving title and thereby ownership, to real estate. A title company was sued for defamation after the title company issued a title report that included the statement that the decedent had died intestate, that is, without a will.

The decedent’s son, who was her executor, sued the title company because his mother did indeed have a will and the title report was defamatory. The court rejected this theory, and the case was brought to the Appellate Court to seek relief for the family. The Appellate Court ruled that until a will has been admitted to probate, it is not effective for the purpose of proving title to real property.

If a person owns real estate, they must have an estate plan to ensure that their property can be successfully transferred to heirs. When there is no estate plan, heirs find out how big a problem this can be when someone decides they want to sell the property or divide it up among family members.

Problems also arise when the family finds that they must pay taxes on the property or that there are expenses that must be paid to maintain the property. Without a will, the disposition of the property is determined by the state’s estate law. Things can become complicated quickly, when there is no will.

If the deceased spouse has children from outside the most recent marriage, those children may have rights to the property and end up owning a portion of the property along with the surviving spouse. However, neither the children nor the surviving spouse can sell the property without each other’s approval. This is a common occurrence.  There are also limitations as to how probate can be used to distribute and manage an estate. In some states, the time limit is four years from the date of death.

An estate planning attorney can help the family move through the probate process more efficiently when there is no will. A better situation would be for the family to speak with their parents about having a will and estate plan created before it’s too late.

Reference: The Huntsville Item (Nov. 22, 2020) “Probating your spouse’s will”

 

Should a Husband and Wife have Separate Trusts?

The decision about separate or joint trusts is not as straightforward as you might think. Sometimes, there is an obvious need to keep things separate, according to the recent article “Joint Trusts or Separate Trusts: Advice for Married Couples” from Kiplinger. However, it is not always the case.

A revocable living trust is a popular way to pass assets to heirs. Assets titled in a revocable living trust don’t go through probate and information about the trust remains private. It is also a good way to plan for incapacity, avoid or reduce the likelihood of a death tax and make sure the right people inherit the trust.

There are advantages to Separate Trusts:

They offer better protection from creditors. When the first spouse dies, the deceased spouse’s trust becomes irrevocable, which makes it far more difficult for creditors to access, while the surviving spouse can still access funds.

If assets are going to non-spouse heirs, separate is better. If one spouse has children from a previous marriage and wants to provide for their spouse and their children, a qualified terminable interest property trust allows assets to be left for the surviving spouse, while the balance of funds are held in trust until the surviving spouse’s death. Then the funds are paid to the children from the previous marriage.

Reducing or eliminating the death tax with separate trusts. Unless the couple has an estate valued at more than $23.16 million in 2020 (or $23.4 million in 2021), they won’t have to worry about federal estate taxes. However, there are still a dozen states, plus the District of Columbia, with state estate taxes and half-dozen states with inheritance taxes. These estate tax exemptions are considerably lower than the federal exemption and heirs could get stuck with the bill. Separate trusts as part of a credit shelter trust would let the couple double their estate tax exemption.

When is a Joint Trust Better?

If there are no creditor issues, both spouses want all assets to go to the surviving spouse and state estate tax and/or inheritance taxes aren’t an issue, then a joint trust could work better because:  Joint trusts are easier to fund and maintain. There is no worrying about having to equalize the trusts, or consider which one should be funded first, etc.

There is less work at tax time. The joint trust doesn’t become irrevocable, until both spouses have passed. Therefore, there is no need to file an extra trust tax return. With separate trusts, when the first spouse dies, their trust becomes irrevocable and a separate tax return must be filed every year.

Joint trusts are not subject to higher trust tax brackets, because they do not become irrevocable until the first spouse dies. However, any investment or interest income generated in an account titled in a deceased spouse’s trust, now irrevocable, will be subject to trust tax brackets. This will trigger higher taxes for the surviving spouse, if the income is not withdrawn by December 31 of each year.

In a joint trust, after the death of the first spouse, the surviving spouse has complete control of the assets. When separate trusts are used, the deceased spouses’ trust becomes irrevocable and the surviving spouse has limited control over assets.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you determine which is best for your situation. This is a complex topic, and this is just a brief introduction.

Reference: Kiplinger (Nov. 20, 2020) “Joint Trusts or Separate Trusts: Advice for Married Couples”