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.

The scourge of the online Will kit

Here’s the problem; everybody needs a Will, but lawyers are too expensive and inconvenient. As a result 65 percent of people don’t have a Will. To address this issue, countless “downloadable Will forms” proliferate across the internet. People use these forms and their loved ones end up with a mountain of trouble.

Let’s explore the evidence;

Are lawyers really too expensive or inconvenient? According to the customers who come to LegalWills, yes, absolutely. They are being quoted anything up to $1200 or £800 for a simple Last Will and Testament, but more commonly it is in the region of $600 or £400. The more significant problem is that updates are being charged anything up to $100 or £50 per change. There is also a gap between what lawyers think people can pay, and what people are prepared to pay. I read this recently on a legal blog, written by an estate planning lawyer

At least once a week I get a call from a potential client. The question is always the same: “How much does X document cost?” This is always a perplexing question. Usually the answer is “I don’t know.”

I know of an attorney who agrees to quote the client a price over the phone if they can answer one simple question: “What color tie am I wearing today?” …This lawyer knows that people will protest- “how can I know what color tie you are wearing if I am not there?” The lawyer then points out (if the client has not gotten it already) that both questions are similar.

So here’s the disconnect; the lawyer thinks he is clever and the client is a bit dim. The prospective client on the other hand wants to know whether they should include in their household budget some money to prepare a Last Will and Testament. In order to do this, they need to get a feel for how much it will cost. I cannot think of any other situation where you would blindly procure a service, hand over your wallet and ask the service provider to charge you whatever they want (veterinarians and dentists aside!).

So most people end up without a Last Will and Testament in place, and of those that do, most are not kept up to date. So we find service providers offering a “downloadable Will” sometimes free of charge. I saw a new one just last week – I have embedded a screenshot of the body of it here. Last Will and TestamentThey have tried to convey some authenticity with some calligraphy at the top and an impenetrable legal sentence to kick off the document

 

I JOHN DOE KNOW ALL PERSONS BY THESE PRESENTS:

 

But the meat of the document comes in article IV, where you are given space to explain how you would like your estate to be distributed. Personally, I feel that this document should be illegal; it is preying on people who don’t want to pay for legal advice and who are trusting this company to provide them with a legally binding document. But it is nothing short of impossible to complete a satisfactory Will using a blank page like this. You need to create alternate plans, trusts, Executor powers, residual plans and without these you end up with an estate like Ann Aldrich who used E-Z Legal Forms to prepare her Will. She listed out her possessions and instructed all of these things to go to her beneficiary. Unfortunately she didn’t explain what should happen to everything else. The result was a family battle over her estate and a judgement that included this warning “I therefore take this opportunity to highlight a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of utilizing pre-printed forms”

Fortunately, there is a very large middle ground between expensive lawyers and dangerous blank forms, and this is being filled by interactive services like the ones at LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com. These services guide you through the process with a series of questions, and then verifies that you have covered all scenarios. It only allows you to do things that your jurisdiction permits, and double checks for things like minor children having guardians and trusts set up appropriately. Clearly some people still need expensive legal advice and custom clauses to be written, but services like this work for the vast majority. So much so, that when a recent study from Oxford University listed the most likely jobs to be replaced by technology, paralegals were 4th on the list with a 94% probability of being replaced by software. Most people who have a Will written by a legal professional have their information typed into software and their Will generated from templates (the staff in the office usually do it), but online services like LegalWills are granting access to those tools directly to the consumer.

People are not likely to use a lawyer who refuses to tell them how much they will charge. But we are hoping that we can steer people away from blank form kits.

 

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.

You may not need legal advice to write a Will

I received an interesting comment from somebody recently;

“I learned of a woman who did a Will through this process but was not advised about how to care for her disabled child when she passed. No Hensen trust was set up for the child. In my personal and professional experience, a person should receive legal advice when preparing a Will”

This comment actually makes no sense. We would agree that this particular person should have received legal advice in preparing their Will. In fact, one of the questions we ask up-front is whether there are special needs children to care for within the Will. If there are, then we would explain to that individual that our service is not a good fit for them, and that they should indeed seek legal advice. But does that therefore mean that everybody needs legal advice to write a Will? Of course not. The vast majority of the users of our service need a Will that leaves everything to their spouse, and if something were to happen to both parents, then the estate would be distributed between their children. Guardians should be named, and possibly trusts for minor beneficiaries. But a Will covering this situation is straightforward and can be written using our service in about 20 minutes. In fact, if you went to a legal professional to prepare this type of Will, you would be paying way more than you need to.

Of course there are are complicated family situations that would benefit from legal advice, but scaremongering everybody into paying for a lawyer leaves us with a situation where about 70% of adults do not have an up-to-date Will. The vast majority of those people could quite easily use our service to fit their estate planning needs.

But the counter argument would be “ahhh, but how does a person know if they need legal advice or not?” At LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com we provide a list of circumstances under which we recommend that a person seek legal advice and not use our service. These include; planning to disinherit a spouse, a history of mental illness, children with special needs or if you think that there may be a challenge to the Will, or have any doubts whatsoever about your situation.

Our advice would be that although you may have heard of somebody needing legal advice to prepare their Will, you shouldn’t feel that this situation applies to you. And you shouldn’t let the thought of booking an appointment with a lawyer put you off preparing your Will. You can have a Will in your hands in about 20 minutes at LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com