Why people still don’t understand digital assets

I read a recent article describing digital assets. The article described the need to create a plan for bequeathing one’s online presence to loved ones and talked about the need to wrap up old Facebook, Twitter and social media accounts by including these “digital assets” in one’s Last Will and Testament.

It’s not just social media accounts, it can be blogs or financial accounts or other things that you can access on your phone or computer,” said Elizabeth Volney, an estate attorney who recently gave a lecture on the subject. “We have tried to adapt our documents to provide access to these accounts both during incapacity and death.”

The recommendation that comes from the article is that you should “hand over the password to your loved one, and let them take care of things when you pass away.”

This is such a simplistic view of the minefield of digital assets, that I need to expand on the issues here.

I always struggle with the lumping together of “digital assets” because I think there are three main categories and each comes with their own considerations:

The first are the accounts that just need to be handled for housekeeping; email accounts, your Linkedin profile, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tinder etc. These should all be closed down otherwise there are uncomfortable reminders; I have two LinkedIn connections who have passed away…it’s awkward and disturbing every time I review my contacts. Most social networks however, now have policies for these and they are well illustrated in this infographic. The situation most commonly cited to highlight this issue occurred in 2004 and 2005 when the family of Justin Ellsworth, a deceased U.S. Marine, successfully secured a court order to force Yahoo to give the contents of Justin’s email account to his family. Keeping account ID’s and passwords in a safe place to be discovered by your loved ones is one approach to handling this type of “digital asset”.

But then there are the accounts that have sentimental value that really should be passed down to a named beneficiary. I have all of my family photos in an online application called Lifecake and I don’t want these to just disappear. iTunes music libraries and eBook accounts should also be preserved if possible, after all, a generation ago people would leave their book and record collections to their children. You may have a genealogy account at ancestry.com, or used another online service that has been developed over a period of time with a great deal of effort. It is a shame to see these disappear and there may be somebody in the family who would like to take them over. It is even possible that different family members may argue over who should take control of these accounts, so although there is little financial value, there is still an argument for including these items in your Will so that it is clear who will take control of them after you have passed away.

However, the third category is the financially valuable digital assets and these can create really significant challenges. If your estate is to be divided equally between your children, but your estate includes some prestigious domain names registered at GoDaddy, a viral video on YouTube, a blog that generates Adsense revenue, some digital downloads at eJunkie, an affiliate account through Clickbank, a PartyPoker account with a significant balance etc how are these going to be divided? It is conceivable that your single most valuable asset in your entire estate is a domain name that could expire if nobody assumes control of it. There was an interesting article recently about a man who threw out an old computer with $7.5 million worth of Bitcoins on it. The inheritance and taxation laws are going to have to move faster to keep up with these innovations; most estate planning lawyers simply don’t understand what some of these things are.

There are of course digital assets that blur the lines between these categories; like email addresses or online identities that may have little financial worth but certainly have value to the family. It is only a matter of time before we see siblings fighting over the family twitter handle. @smith would be pretty cool to have, so it really needs to be in the Will along with the porcelain tea pot that nobody really cares about anyway.

There is much more to the handling of digital assets than keeping a list of User ID’s and passwords. At LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com we partnered with MyLifeLocker to make sure that this piece of the puzzle is taken care of. We also have a proprietary keyholder® mechanism to ensure that no online accounts are left undiscovered by your Executor. But you have to give very careful attention to the distribution of these digital assets and make sure that the true value of each asset is properly understood. If certain digital assets have financial value, it may be appropriate to list them in your Will.

What is your most valuable digital asset and do you know who will own it after you have passed away? Do you have any digital assets that may result in a family squabble? I would love to hear about them as I am sure I have missed some potential issues in this blog post.

 

Don’t let other people’s mistakes put you off preparing your own Will.

Every once in a while there is an unfortunate case of somebody making a mistake when attempting to prepare their own Will. A recent case in Florida has been reported, quite literally, thousands of times through different law blogs as a “cautionary tale” of how things can go badly wrong when you try to prepare your own Will. You can look up the case of “Aldrich v. Basile” and you will see about 100,000 results with headings like

“Case Illustrates Dangers of Executing a Will Without Legal Assistance”
“Do-It-Yourself Wills: Cheap Now, Expensive Later?”
“Why Preprinted or Online Legal Forms Are Not Advisable”

I’ll explain my position on this very sad situation by firstly summarizing exactly where Ms Aldrich went wrong. In an E-Z Will kit form she listed some specific assets to go to her sister and if the sister were to predecease her, the list of assets would go to her brother. Then a few years later her sister died, so she updated that Will with a handwritten note that stated;

This is an addendum to my will dated April 5, 2004. Since my sister Mary jean Eaton has passed away, I reiterate that all my worldly possessions pass to my brother James Michael Aldrich, 2250 S. Palmetto, S. Daytona FL 32119.

There were two issues; firstly her original Will only covered the list of assets, not everything else. However, even though the handwritten update covered “all my worldly possessions” it was only signed in the presence of one witness not two and so was not accepted by the courts.blank paper

With respect to the first error, this is unfortunately a limitation of blank form kits, and this is why we steer people away from them – It is easy to forget things. It is important to not confuse a blank form kit with a fully interactive service that guides you through the process and checks for errors. When a person makes a mistake with an E-Z Will kit form it is a warning bell for using this type of form, not for trying to prepare one’s own Will using interactive software. If you use a service like ours this mistake is absolutely impossible to make.

But I personally feel that the second error reflects badly on the Florida Supreme Court. In their ruling the judge stated that

Unfortunately, I surmise that, although this is the correct result under Florida’s probate law, this result does not effectuate Ms. Aldrich’s true intent. While we are unable to legally consider Ms. Aldrich’s unenforceable handwritten note that was found attached to her previously drafted will, this note clearly demonstrates that Ms. Aldrich’s true intent was to pass all of her “worldly possessions” to her brother, James Michael Aldrich

Thankfully an increasing number of jurisdictions have introduced laws that try to respect the intent of the testator and they will not allow true intent to be over-ruled by a technicality. In this case, everybody knows what Ms Aldrich meant, everybody knows what she wanted, but the lawyers and the courts successfully managed to throw this out. The court declared that Ms Aldrich had died without a Will and gave a share of the estate to her nieces according to intestate law.

The judge actually stated that she was deciding the case contrary to the testator’s “true intent”, Ms Aldrich did not want any of her estate to pass to her nieces, they were never mentioned in any of her documents. One legal blogger was very critical of the decision claiming that;

Apparently, the court wished to inflict post-mortem punishment on the testator for engaging in DIY estate planning….The court blamed the “unfortunate result” on the fact that Ann did not seek legal assistance in creating her estate plan. 

So now to the reaction and estate planning lawyers are collectively rubbing their hands with glee and providing all kinds of examples of why trying to prepare your own Will is a mistake. Like this one

A lot of times clients come in saying they want something very simple,” says Rubin. “But then you find out their daughter had a baby by artificial reproductive technology. If the definition of ‘child’ in your will isn’t up-to-date, you could disinherit your grandchild.

The claim is nonsense. This clearly does not happen “a lot of times” and perhaps the conclusion should be that if this situation does not apply to you, you can safely go the “do-it-yourself” route.

They then go on to say

These are the conditions each state requires for a will to be considered valid. The standard in Florida is two witnesses.“Every state has its own quirky rules,” cautions Rubin

Actually…it’s not that quirky, every single state requires two witnesses. Across the internet, the scaremongering goes on with countless obscure examples of how attempting to prepare one’s own Will is going to lead to trouble. As an aside, the vast majority of challenges are to Wills prepared by estate planning lawyers but we rarely see “a cautionary tale for what can happen if you use a lawyer to prepare your Will”.

The fallout of this unfortunate case leads me to the following recommendations;

Do not be scared off from preparing your own Will. It isn’t as complicated as some people want you to believe. If you have a complicated family situation then you need legal advice, but most people do not. From time-to-time there will be an article in the media about somebody who made a mistake with a Will kit. This does not mean that preparing your own Will is a bad idea. Over 65% of people do not have an up-to-date Will in place, and many of these are under the mistaken impression that you must use a lawyer to prepare a Will. You should take things into your own hands and make sure that your Will is in place.

Do not use a blank do-it-yourself Will kit, there is a very significant likelihood that you will make a mistake or not cover all situations that need to be covered. Blank forms have way too many spaces that have to be completely correctly. When you see a Will completed through our service you can appreciate how complicated the document can be, with various trust clauses and powers to the Executor. If you do not have a legal education you would not be able to create a well drafted Will using these kits.

Do not use a handwritten note to express your wishes; it opens your estate up to challenges and it may not fulfil the requirements of a Last Will and Testament or Codicil.

Do not use a Codicil to make an update to a Will. Just create a new Will. If you use an online service like ours, you can just login, make the change and print off a new Will. It’s easy.

I just wish that common sense would have prevailed and that the courts would have respected the final wishes of Ann Aldrich. It’s a real shame that they wouldn’t.

Tim Hewson is the President and Founder of the LegalWills group of companies. Offering online interactive estate planning services through LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk. Founded in 2001, these services have become market leaders helping hundreds of thousands of people prepare their important legal documents.

How to forge a Will

The title of course is tongue-in-cheek, but it seems that from all of the news lately, there has been a sudden spate of estate disputes and legal challenges. Either because a Will has been forged, signed under duress or written by somebody without the capacity to write the Will. These cases demonstrate that the prospect of an inheritance can bring out the worst in people, create rifts in families, and can result in very expensive legal battles that serve nobody other than the lawyers.

It starts with the bizarre trial of Peter/ Tony Chan who was convicted of forging the Will of Nina Wang – once Asia’s richest woman. Trying to forge a $4 Billion Will is a tricky crime to get away with, and it resulted in a 12 year jail sentence. But Mr Chan was not alone. Next was the Will of Harinder Singh Brar, Maharaja of Faridkot, with another $4 Billion estate. This time it was a team of staff members who connived to leave the entire estate to themselves in Trust, but the courts ruled that the Will was made under duress and therefore illegal.

However, it’s actually more likely that a Will would be manipulated or forged for a more modest estate, and this was the topic of a recent article in the Daily Telegraph discussing the rapid increase in legal battles over estates. There are three key reasons for this rise; firstly, the size of the average estate in the UK has risen from £150k to £265k in a decade. In addition, people are starting to depend on an inheritance as part of their own financial plan – consumer debt is rising and many are banking on an inheritance to get themselves out of debt. And finally, society in general has become more litigious over the years.

Contrary to popular opinion, writing a Will through an online service does not make the document any more likely to be challenged. In fact, just recently, a Will drawn up by a solicitor while in the presence of one daughter, was deemed invalid as the testator did not have mental capacity to write the Will. Turns out that the daughter (who happened to be a magistrate) put pressure on her mother to disinherit the other children. Oh, and she had to pay back the £18,000 in gifts she received in the last few months of her frail life. The real tragedy of this story though is that the estate was worth about £200k, and the whole lot disappeared in legal fees. The whole estate went to the lawyers.

There are some lessons to be taken from this troubling stories. Most importantly, write your Will when you are young enough and have the mental capacity to do it. People procrastinate with their Will writing, thinking that they will prepare it when they are older. We hear all the time people saying “fortunately, I don’t need a Will yet?”. Obviously you don’t, you don’t need a Will until you die, but it’s too late to write one then.

This is one of the reasons that online services like those offered by LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk are becoming increasingly popular. They allow you to prepare your Will in your own time, on your own terms, but also allow you to update your Will throughout your life, as often as you wish. It makes sense to prepare a Will today, and then just update it as circumstances change.

Bleak House and your Last Will and Testament

I was recently reminded of the Charles Dickens novel Bleak House, which centres around the court case Jarndyce and Jarndyce. For those of you unfamiliar with the story; it tells of a legal battle over a large inheritance which is dragged on through the court system. In fact, it continues for generations until the case is finally closed.

as well as he could make out, it was over. Over for the day? we asked him. No, he said, over for good. Over for good! When we heard this unaccountable answer, we looked at one another quite lost in amazement. Could it be possible that the will had set things right at last and that Richard and Ada were going to be rich? It seemed too good to be true. Alas it was! ……”Mr. Kenge,” said Allan, appearing enlightened all in a moment. “Excuse me, our time presses. Do I understand that the whole estate is found to have been absorbed in costs?” “Hem! I believe so,”

The lawyers continued to fight the battle over the inheritance until the whole estate was absorbed in legal fees, at which time, the lawyers all stopped working on the case !! Jarndyce

The novel was written in 1853, in a very different World to the one we live in, but just yesterday I saw that, generations on, the legal profession still works in the same way. The bankruptcy of Nortel has so far racked up $755M in legal fees while the parties argue on how to divide $9B in assets, and after nearly a billion dollars in legal expenses, the proceedings are no closer to a resolution. The lawyers have no vested interest in drawing the case to a close as they can continue to bill $1000 an hour in fees.

So what does this mean for your estate? and how can you minimize your assets ending up in the hands of litigating lawyers?

  • Write your Will, make it clear and unambiguous.
  • Do not use a blank do-it-yourself form from a bookstore
  • Sign it according to the signing requirements in your jurisdiction (usually two witnesses must sign, who have no vested interest in the contents of the Will).
  • Write your Will while you are young enough to have the capacity to understand it.
  • Update your Will as soon as your personal or financial circumstances change.
  • Never make an update to a Will by writing on the document or putting lines through sections. Always prepare a new Will when you want to make a change.
  • If you have very complicated affairs, consider getting legal advice when preparing a Will.

It is a myth that preparing your own Will means that your estate is more likely to face a legal challenge. If you use an interactive online service like the ones offered at LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk you can create a Will as complete and legal as a Will prepared by a lawyer or solicitor. In fact, if you look at the legal fights over Wills, they are frequently prepared by lawyers and we’ve discussed many in this blog, for example Huguette M. Clark, and Anna Nicole Smith. Often though, problems arise from Wills not being updated properly because circumstances change, and a return to a lawyer’s office is too expensive or inconvenient. This is why many people are turning to online services like those offered by LegalWills because it allows them to prepare the document conveniently, but more importantly, these services allow the users to update their document at any time, as often as they wish. In many ways, the services reduce the likelihood of a legal challenge, and the loss of the entire estate to legal fees.

Challenges to Wills…Sir Jimmy Saville’s estate frozen.

In a previous blog article we explained the different grounds for a successful challenge to a Will. We thought that this was an important article as it is often cited as a reason for not writing your own Will. Many times we have seen lawyers claim that if you write your own Will or use a service like the one at LegalWills, then your Will is more likely to be challenged. In our previous article we explained that there are five key grounds for a challenge (see the original article for a more detailed description);

  • Mental capacity: The person making the Will must understand that they are indeed writing and signing their Will
  • Undue influence: In order to contest a will on the ground of undue influence, it must be shown that the testator did something contrary to his or her true desires.
  • Improper execution of the Will: This varies by jurisdiction but in general the document must be signed in the presence of two or three witnesses who are not beneficiaries in the Will
  • Fraud: This can take many forms from the falsification of documents including forged signatures
  • No provision for dependents: This varies widely across jurisdictions but there are sometimes people who have to be included in a Will.

Last week, we saw an example of the “no provision for dependents” in the case of Sir Jimmy Saville. A three page Will, prepared by a solicitor in England, being challenged by a person claiming to be his illigitimate child. In this case though, the solicitor is blameless, as it is almost certain that Sir Jimmy did not divulge to the will-writer that he may have a child from a short intimate encounter in 1970!

But it is worth keeping in mind that according to English law a dependent can challenge based on the Provision For Family And Dependants Act where according to the article

The Act gives a child or other dependant the right to make a claim against their parent’s estate, for which they are required to successfully argue that ‘reasonable financial provision’ was not made for them.

They would also have to prove that whatever amount they sought was a ‘reasonable maintenance’, based on how well they already were able to support themselves’.

It is complicated, because as the solicitor in the article rightly explains

“a judge would pay close attention to what Mrs Ray needed to maintain herself financially. This is where adult children with jobs or earning capacity often fall down, as the vast majority tend to be financially independent and used to providing for their own standard of living, It would be open to the court to conclude that nothing at all was in fact reasonable financial provision, and it may well do that, if it considers that she is well provided for from her own resources.”

I always find the comments underneath the article to be the most interesting and it appears that sympathies lie with the daughter who grew up without a father. The three most approved comments are;

“I assume he didn’t pay for her upbringing so why shouldn’t she have a claim to it now? No amount of money can replace not being loved and raised by both your parents. She will forever be affected by this rejection.”

“She’s entitled to it. Shame on him for not acknowledging her”

“Saville had the opportunity to address this when he was alive and chose not to. He had a responsibility. God luck to her …”

So the lesson? firstly, make sure that you have written your Will, and then make sure that it is up to date. Using a service like the one at LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk, you can update your Will in a few seconds to make sure that it always reflects the most recent changes to your financial and personal situation. Things can happen in your life, not just to you, but to people mentioned in your Will. It may not be an illegitimate child coming out of the woodwork!! but there are countless reasons why your Will would need to be updated; if the guardian for your children suddenly becomes unable to take on that responsibility, if your Executor no longer seems the most appropriate choice, or if somebody comes into your life who you may wish to acknowledge in your Will.

We will be watching this case with interest to see whether the courts overturn Sir Jimmy’s Will.

How not to write a Last Will and Testament

People are sometimes scared away from writing their own Will. Lawyers will claim that it is a difficult task that only people in the legal profession truly understand, and with some scaremongering, convince people that they should pay a lot of money for legal advice even though their wishes may be very simple. We’ve presented many arguments over the last few months explaining that writing a Will is certainly something within the intellectual means of many people, particularly with interactive tools that are available today. At the same time, we warn people against the use of cheap kits or blank forms, or even preparing a Will starting with a blank sheet of paper.

There are definitely certain legal elements that have to belong in every Will and it is possible that in attempting to handwrite a Will from scratch, these elements can be overlooked. An example  of how it can all go wrong made the press last month in the case of Irish poet John O’Donohue and his €2 million estate.

Mr O’Donohue was an educated man, he wrote poetry and philosophy for a living, so it would seem that writing a Will should be easily within his intellectual capabilities. Particularly when his wishes were seemingly quite straightforward; he wanted everything that he owned to go to his mother to be divided equally between his family. But he made at least two terrible mistakes in his Will. He went on to wish that his sister was to receive extra care and help and that some funds should go as specific bequests to other individuals. Generally a court would try and respect a person’s wishes if they can be deciphered, but in this Will there were both “mutually exclusive” wishes and there were also extra bequests that could not be quantified or sourced. In other words, you can’t say “leave everythingI own to John Doe and leave a half of everything I own to Jane Doe”.

The other critical mistake was that the witnesses to the signing of the document were his mother and brother; both beneficiaries  in the Will. This alone in most jurisdictions would nullify the Will as there would always be a suspicion of coercion if the witnesses are also beneficiaries.

So, what are the important lessons here? At first it would be easy to make this a shining example of why you should not prepare your own Will, but I think this is an over-reaction. If you use an interactive service like the one at LegalWills.caUSLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk you are guided through the process each step of the way. The signing instructions are included as part of the service, and yes, it is a good idea to read them. Put simply, to make your document legal it must be signed in the presence of two (or sometimes three depending on the jurisdiction) witnesses who cannot benefit from the contents of the Will. This means beneficiaries for sure, and also in some places the spouse of a beneficiary cannot serve as a witness. They are some other criteria as well; adults, of sound mind etc.

It is also important to read through one’s Will once it is completed to make sure there are no conflicting requests. You can’t leave the same thing to more than one person.

John O’Donohue’s story is a sad one (not so much for his mother who ended up inheriting everything), but it should not scare people away from writing their own Will. If you have a straightforward situation it is well within the capabilities of most people to use an interactive tool to prepare their Will. However, do not use a blank kit, and do not attempt to write one yourself starting with a blank piece of paper.

The Perils of a Codicil

In a previous post we highlighted the dangers of making quick changes to a Last Will and Testament. We discussed the reasons why you might want to update your Will and the different options available to you for making an update. There were two important pieces of advice in this post; never make a handwritten change to a Will by scratching something out and annotating the text with a scrawled message. Secondly, don’t make a codicil and attach it to your Will, you are far better off re-writing your Will and starting afresh than adding codicils and attaching them to the original document.

Just a reminder; a codicil is a document that makes reference to the original Will, describes the required change and is then signed and witnessed in exactly the same way as a full Last Will and Testament. In practice this rarely serves as a shortcut because the signing requirements are the same. Furthermore, it is probably more difficult to write your own codicil as it is to write your own Will as there are very few resources and tools available to help in the process. There is still a certain amount of “legalese” that needs to appear in a codicil; statements like “in all other aspects I reaffirm my Will dated …..” which is not a sentence that comes naturally to most people. Codicils were popular back in the day because it saved typing out the whole 5 page document again, but of course, in today’s world of computers and printers, there is absolutely no time-saving. Unfortunately, people have a dangerous misconception that a codicil can simply be written and attached to the Will and this attachment has the same legal weight as the Will itself. Don’t believe me? then this news article from earlier this week demonstrates exactly the issue. A woman’s stepfather sadly killed himself and left a suicide note, then according to the article he:

“also left an addendum to his will – increasing Decatur’s inheritance to $100,000. The bulk of Badini’s $1.18 million estate is going to a well-known children’s charity. In his first will – Badini, a member of the Masonic Lodge – willed everything to their Shriners Hospitals for Children. Despite Badini’s handwritten change – it, and two earlier revisions, known legally as codicils – are being challenged….Richard Lyon, the attorney representing Shriners Hospitals told FOX 5: “It is our opinion that the judge should not have accepted the codicils.” Lyon says a probate judge entered the will and the codicils before anyone from Shriners Hospitals was aware of them. Here is the problem. The changes Badini made were not signed by any witnesses. Maryland law requires two witness signatures.”

That the codicils were ever accepted by the Probate courts is a complete mystery; these handwritten amendments to the Will are completely worthless under the law of this jurisdiction.

So our message remains the same. The easiest way to keep a Will updated to reflect a change of circumstance or a change of heart is to use an online service like those at LegalWills.ca , LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com . You can not only create your Will, but you can return at any time to make an update and then create a new Will to reflect a change on your personal or financial situation. It’s bad enough that 70 percent of adults don’t have a legal Will, but even worse that most people with a Will don’t maintain them because it is very inconvenient and expensive to do so. This unfortunate case shows that while in a desperate state, the last thing on this man’s mind was booking an appointment with a lawyer to prepare a new Will.