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.

 

Documenting your assets; online or paper?

The single most challenging job for an Executor of a Last Will and Testament is to gather up the estate. The estate is made up of land or buildings, financial accounts and policies, “chattels” (stuff that you own), and now, increasingly online accounts. If the list of assets is not written down or stored anywhere it is an impossible task, and the Executor has no way of knowing when the task is completed. As a result, the BBC reports that there is £15B in dormant bank accounts, The Bank of Canada have posted that they are currently looking after 1.3 Million unclaimed bank accounts waiting for a claim. And in the US, CNN reports that there is $58B in unclaimed assets sitting in State treasuries.

Each jurisdiction has its own way of dealing with these accounts; Canada probably has the most straightforward search through the Bank of Canada, the UK has a service called MyLostAccount set up by the British Bankers Association (but it’s a tedious service to work with) and the US has allowed free enterprise to encourage a variety of different services, headed by the non-profit National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, with a service at unclaimed.org which allows you to search through different State treasuries.

Most of these unclaimed accounts are for people who have passed away, when the Executor knew nothing about them. The administration of the estate was completed without knowledge of those accounts, and the assets entered into an eternal limbo until the government claims them as their own. Given how widespread the issue is, and the billions of dollars at stake, what can be done to ensure that all of your assets reach your beneficiaries? There are, at a high level, two options;

Writing everything down on a piece of paper
The first point to note with this option is that under no circumstances should you describe details of all of your accounts in your Will. It would mean having to update your Will every time an asset changes including signing and witnessing the document, but more importantly, once probated, your Will is a public document so everybody will be able to read this detail. There have already been reports of scammers scouring probate records for login credentials written into Wills. What we therefore mean is writing everything down on a piece of paper and storing it with your Will; you can do this either on an ad-hoc basis or through a structured book like My LifeLocker.

The key advantage of this approach is that it is personal and confidential; you are not relying on any third party to store the information, so it is guaranteed to be safe. The disadvantage is that in keeping the document safe, it may never be found. Paper is not particularly durable either, so it may get lost in a house fire, flood or other natural disaster.

Using an online service
The alternative is to use an online service that offers to store your account information and passwords for you, and then release them at the appropriate time. Let me deal with the obvious disadvantages of this method first. You are handing all of your personal and financial details over to a third party. If somebody came to your front door and offered to look after your passwords for you, there is not a chance that you would take them up on the offer, so why would a website be any different? Some of these services are offered through overseas companies and you would quite frankly be insane to trust them. The company also has to last longer than you, which is this rapid world of startup booms and busts is statistically not likely. In our 14 years of operation we have seen companies offering this type of service come and go, and on the Digital Beyond blog they recently wrote about 26 companies that offered to keep your credentials safe for your loved ones (for a monthly fee) that have subsequently disappeared; AssetLock, E-Z-Safe, EstateLogic, Eternity Message, Futuristk, GreatGoodbye, if i die.org, Legacy Organiser, Life Document Storage, LifeStory.com, Lifestrand, Memorial Gardens, MemoValley, MentoMori, My Last Email, My Web Will, and MyInternetData.

But there are advantages to using a service like this. At LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk we have teamed up with My LifeLocker to guide people through the process of documenting all of their assets including their online accounts, and then have tied this together with our proprietary Keyholder mechanism. You name a trusted keyholder who is given a unique securely generated key. They can then unlock your document at the appropriate time after going through the required security measures. The information is encrypted so it means that the right information gets in the right hands at the right time, and cannot be compromised. It is also easy to update by logging into your own secure account, the same account that you used to prepare your Last Will and Testament, Living Will and Power of Attorney.

So if you are going to use an online service, look firstly for one with longevity. Look for the usual industry seals like Better Business Bureau accreditation or maybe check out Ripoff reports at www.ripoffreport.com. Look for companies that are based in your home country and then check to see the type of security that they have in place. The recent Heartbleed Bug awakened many people to the risks of online accounts (we weren’t affected). Finally look at the actual mechanism for releasing the data; how is it guarded against unauthorized access.

Our Lifelocker service actually has the best of both worlds; you can print it and store the document on your bookshelf, and also have an online version available to your keyholders. Or just choose the one approach that works for your situation.

Why common-law marriage is a myth

Often times we end up writing articles that try and explain the kind of mess you can get into if you don’t have a Will. So often, the complexities of the law can be avoided completely if you write a Last Will and Testament. Common-law marriage is a case in point.

According to some statistics, about one in six people co-habit without getting married; clearly there are many reasons for this which we won’t get into, but if ever there was a case for preparing a Will, a common-law marriage is it. I will now attempt to distill the vagaries of the law across different jurisdictions.

In the UK, the law is simple and unequivocal;  ‘common law marriage’ has no recognition in law and unless you have both made Wills neither of you will have any automatic rights to inherit from the other. The intestacy rules dictate what happens if you die without a valid Will and they make no provision whatsoever for a ‘partner’; it is only a ‘spouse’ who will automatically inherit. You may have co-habitated for 50 years, but in the eyes of the law, you are complete strangers if one of you dies without a Will (you may be able to make some claim based on a “dependency”, but this would require a challenge to the default distribution of the estate). Incidentally, if you do inherit money or property from an unmarried partner, you are not exempt from paying inheritance tax, as married couples are.

In Canada, it is slightly more complicated. British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Territories do recognize common-law relationships, however, Ontario, Alberta, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and PEI do not recognize common-law partnerships and surviving partners will face the same challenges as those described for the UK (above).

The US also has very complicated State specific laws which I can’t go into here. I have spent literally hours looking through State laws to find a good explanation that would fit into this blog, but it cannot be done. In summary there is a common misperception that if you live together for a certain length of time (seven years is what many people believe), you are common-law married. This is not true anywhere in the United States. There are 11 states that recognize the existence of a common-law marriage, and this allows the surviving partner to inherit if there is no Will. For the other States there is no protection for surviving common-law partners.

In short, if you are cohabiting, in a “domestic partnership”, living in a putative Marriage (one that is simply implied) or a common-law situation, you absolutely must write your Will to protect the rights of your surviving partner. You should also prepare a Power of Attorney and Living Will because depending on your jurisdiction, your common-law spouse may have no rights if you were ever to be incapacitated.

Fortunately, a Last Will and Testament, Financial Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney, Living Will and Advance Directives can all be created through the online tools at www.legalwills.ca , www.uslegalwills.com and www.legalwills.co.uk. The whole process takes no more than a few minutes and can protect the rights of your partner. It is a serious issue that should not be put-off.

The challenge of keeping your Will up-to-date

Most professional advisors recommend that you update your Will after key life events. Certainly marriage, divorce, the birth of new children, or the death of a beneficiary would all necessitate a review of your Will. Sadly though, these life events are generally so significant that the updating of your Will is probably the furthest thing from your mind.

We saw the example just over a year ago of Gary Coleman who prepared a Will in 2005 and then over the course of a couple of years married, divorced and then lived as common-law. He attempted to keep his Will up-to-date by adding handwritten notes to it, which resulted in a long, protracted legal battle over his estate. Then there was the case of Anna Nicole-Smith’s Will, which was not updated after the birth of her child. She died when her child was 5 months old, and quite understandably had not found the time to update her Will (in spite of being surrounded by lawyers in her life).

If you think about what really happens during the traumatic life events, like the death of a child or a divorce – how soon can people realistically be expected to book an appointment with a lawyer to re-write their Will? And when many life events occur in quick succession, how significant is the $600-$800 cost for every update?Blue-Eyes-Cute-Baby-HD-Wallpaper-1080x607

The life event that hits closest to home for me is the birth of a new child. It was four weeks after the birth of our daughter that we sat down and said “oh, I guess we’ll need to update our Wills, after all, we needed to name a guardian for the child, and set up a minor trust.” It took us a full four weeks to realise that this needed to be done – and I work full time for the LegalWills websites !!

Of course, one strategy employed by the legal profession is to try to future-proof the Will. Clauses refer to “any surviving children”, or “any known issue” which takes into account the births or deaths of any children between the writing of the Will and the execution of the Will. However, it’s a bit of a workaround, because new children need to have guardians appointed in a Will, and they should have trusts set up for their inheritance.

Fortunately for me, my Will was written using LegalWills.ca, and our other services at LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com provide the same convenience. I don’t need to pay anything for an update – I simply login to my account, add the new child, name a guardian and then determine the ages at which my daughter will receive her inheritance; even splitting it one third at 21, one third at 25 and one third at 30. It took me about 10 minutes and it was all completed while sitting on my sofa at home – now I just need to print and sign the new Will in the presence of two witnesses to have a legal up-to-date Will.

Like most people, I would not have taken the time to seek out a lawyer and I wouldn’t be prepared to pay $800 to make these changes. Fortunately, by using the LegalWills service I know have the peace of mind that my new daughter is taken care of should anything happen to her parents.

Writing your Will isn’t about you…

We occasionally hear people explain that they haven’t prepared a Will because they don’t really care what happens after they have died – they’ll be dead. This attitude always dismays me a little because writing a Will isn’t about you – your Will is for your loved ones. The excuse is often followed up with “I don’t need a Will, it’s obvious what will happen to my things”. A recent news article highlighted why these approaches are so disrespectful to one’s family.

In Canada, you can claim a tax free spousal rollover from retirement savings, as long as it is all completed within a year. A 54 year old widower lost his wife to cancer, and was the Executor of the estate. According to the rules, he has to submit the paperwork with the bank; including the death certificate, Will and probably probate documents. In this case, the bank lost everything and he was supposed to follow up. But guess what; he has 3 children from 5 years old to 16 and he had just lost his wife. In his words “I was overwhelmed with worry, and the priorities were always the kids. I was reading up on what happens with kids after they lose their mom….Oh, God. There were too many emotions and too many other things happening with the kids.” In this unfortunate case, he simply lost track and was expected to pay tax on the $80,000 savings (the bank has since stepped in and offered to pay).

This expression of being overwhelmed is very common for loved ones when a family member passes away. Throughout these emotionally desperate times there is a funeral to arrange, banking, taxation, care for the family, the list is endless. Many people have a hard time filing their taxes at the best of times, so imagine trying to do it shortly after your partner has passed away.

There are two key points to understand. Firstly, taking care of the bureaucracy is usually much easier with a Will in place. Furthermore, the Will  allows you to choose an Executor for your estate, and given the emotional toll on your spouse, it may make sense to appoint another family member or trusted friend to take care of the paperwork.

I find it odd that people care so much for their loved ones while they are alive, but leave them with a legacy of problems by dying without a Will. It only takes about 20 minutes to write a Will at legalwills.ca, legalwills.co.uk and uslegalwills.com and costs less than dinner and a movie.

Writing a Will isn’t for your benefit, it is for your loved ones.

Intangible assets and your Last Will and Testament

There is a great deal of discussion on the internet about digital assets and how they should be included in one’s Will. We have discussed it in previous blog articles and included a range of examples to demonstrate how wide-reaching the concept really is. There are of course online accounts that need to be closed down; Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, but then there are the accounts that may have some sentimental value; Flickr, Instagram, Facebook. Equally importantly though are the accounts that have serious financial value; PayPal, Blogger, GoDaddy, PartyPoker. Beyond that are the  digital assets that should have some material value; iTunes, Amazon collections, Google Play.

It is a really complicated business because the straightforward approach to these “assets” is to simply store one’s User ID and Password in a safe place available to the Executor of one’s Will. But there still needs to be a beneficiary of the asset. If I have a prestige domain name registered in my name, then it is a simple task for the Executor to log into my GoDaddy account and then transfer the domain name to a beneficiary, but I need to make it known who the beneficiary should be. And for the purposes of tax reporting, the Executor needs to know the value of that domain name.

It has been well reported that iTunes do not allow your purchases to be passed on to a beneficiary. The actor Bruce Willis was prepared to take Apple to court over his right to bequeath his music collection. PayPal on the other hand, does have a clear (albeit convoluted) policy which includes faxing in a death certificate, Will, diver’s license etc.

 

But there are other material assets that are not regarded as “digital,” and the confusing status of these was highlighted by a great article from a couple of weeks back. What about airmiles, frequent flyer points, and other loyalty rewards? It turns out that five of 12 U.S. airlines — Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit — do not allow miles or points to be transferred to beneficiaries. Four of 15 hotel companies surveyed — Choice, Omni, Red Roof and Shilo — don’t allow points to transfer. But most simply don’t have a policy. Virgin America, for example, doesn’t have “a formal published policy,” spokeswoman Abby Lunardini says, but transfers a decedent’s reward points to a beneficiary or family member on “a case-by-case basis.” Marriott says a decedent’s points can be transferred only to a spouse or domestic partner, while Hyatt says points can only be transferred to a person with the “same residential mailing address” as the decedent……what?!?

I don’t think it is nitpicking though, these assets can genuinely be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

For now we would recommend making sure that your passwords and User ID’s are kept somewhere safe, and somewhere that is accessible to your Executor. You should consider using a tool like MyLifeLocker to organize and describe your assets. And you should be comfortable listing specific accounts to go to specific beneficiaries in your Will. With a service like LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk this is a very simple process.

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.