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.

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The funnel to a successful estate plan

It’s an unfortunate reality that very few people end up with a perfectly executed estate plan. In an ideal world we would see every person’s assets being passed to the next generation in a way that represents their wishes, in reality there are a number of key steps to this process and consequently too many points of failure. This post will explore those steps and what we are doing at LegalWills to try and improve the numbers;

1. 65% of people don’t write their Will

This is of course the most significant leak in the funnel. The vast majority of people never create a Will because it is too expensive or inconvenient. As a result, people procrastinate thinking that they can get to it some time next year. Alternatively they wait until there is stability in their life because they think that the writing of a Will is something that they only want to do once in their life. We often hear from people who say “I will be getting married next Summer, should I hold off writing a Will until then?”. On the one hand, it is true that getting married will invalidate the Will in most jurisdictions, but there is never a time that a person should be without a Will. So we recommend that the Will is written today, updated when the person gets married, and updated every time they experience another major life event. Which brings us to the second issue – Funnel

2. Most Wills are not kept up to date

When a person visits a lawyer to prepare their Will, they can pay a significant amount of money and with that, they would expect the document to last quite some time, if not a lifetime. The reality of course is that the document can be out of date by the time the person gets home. There are many high profile examples of Wills not being updated with dire consequences; new children not being included, new partners, Executors who are no longer fit to serve. In fact, most celebrity Will disputes are caused by a Will not being updated to reflect new circumstances. A Will should not only be updated when there are changes in personal circumstances, but also when a life event happens to anybody named in the Will. It may be that the personal guardians for your children have moved across the country, had triplets of their own or for whatever reason are simply no longer the best choice. Many times we hear from people who explain that “I do have a Will but it was written twenty years ago, before we had children”, in which case, although they are one of the 35% with a Will, it is all but useless.

3. Many Wills are never found

The single most common question we receive at LegalWills for non-customers is “my father had a Will, but we don’t know where it is, how can we find it?” and the short answer is, you can’t. It doesn’t matter whether the Will is stored at home, or with a lawyer’s office, if the family and loved ones are not told where the Will is located, they have very little chance of finding it. We also hear from customers who aren’t sure how to revoke an old Will and explain that “I had a Will written 15 years ago with a lawyer, but I was living in a different city then, I’m not even sure that the lawyer is still there, how do I cancel this Will”. In this situation the testator can’t even find their Will, so there is no chance of a family being able to find it. So although this person is technically one of the 35% with a Will, it hasn’t been updated and it has no chance of being found.

4. The Executor has no idea how many assets there are

We are now left with less than 10% of the population; they have written their Will, they updated it regularly to reflect changes in their circumstances, their family and loved ones are able to find the Will when they need it, but now the Executor will have to find the assets. But there is no list of assets kept with the Will; so infrequently used bank accounts, online assets, dormant savings accounts, stock purchases, or even cash under the floorboards will never be found and never make their way to the beneficiaries. It is never a good idea to include a complete list of assets in the Will itself; they change frequently and you wouldn’t want to have to update the document every time a new account is opened, but the Executor needs to know when their job is complete.

At LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com we have tried to solve these issues. Firstly, we created a service that allows you to write your legal Will for $34.95 or £24.95 from the comfort of your home. We then allow you to update the document by simply logging into your account, making the change, and printing a new document. We then allow you to create messages that can be distributed to key people after you have passed away, and this can include instructions for locating your Will. Finally we have teamed up with My Life Locker™; the Ultimate Life Organizational System. Using this service you are able to maintain a file of your personal assets which can then be accessed by designated keyholders™ only at the appropriate time. This ensures that all of your assets make their way to your beneficiaries.

Where are your assets?

Let us assume for now that you are one of the minority who has written your Last Will and Testament. Now let us assume that you are one of the few of that minority who has bothered to keep it up to date. There’s a good chance that your Will would say something like “I leave my entire estate to my husband John” or “I divide my estate equally between my two children Billy and Betty”.

Now imagine that something were to happen to you today. Would the person who you have named as the Executor in your Will be able to find all of your assets? How many financial accounts do you have? How many insurance policies? What about online accounts with financial assets (like PayPal, GoDaddy PaddyPower or eBay), how many online accounts with family memorabilia (like Flickr, Picassa or Shutterfly), accounts with material assets (like iTunes, Audible, Amazon). There used to be a time when your Executor would go through your mail and take a look at bank statements, but do you receive paper statements from your eTrade, Questrade, William Hill or Party Poker accounts?

Even the people closest to you may not know about every financial or material asset that you own, and if they do, they may struggle to gain access. If you write a Will using a lawyer or solicitor, and have named that legal professional as your Executor, do you let them know every time you open a new account? One of the most common questions we get at LegalWills is “my Dad wrote a Will with a lawyer, but we don’t know which one, how can we find it”. In these situations, the lawyer doesn’t even know that the person has died, so they almost certainly won’t have an up-to-date list of assets.

At LegalWills we are trying to bring Will writing into the twenty first century. Firstly, by letting people prepare their own legal documents at an affordable price for the comfort of their home, and then by letting them update them whenever circumstances change. But modern technology also allows us to do innovative things like integrate My Life Locker into our LegalWills services. My Life Locker allows you to keep an up-to-date record of your key contacts, assets, financial accounts and online accounts which can then be updated at any time, simply by logging into your account. You can at any time download and print your Life Locker and keep it somewhere safe in the house. Alternatively, you can create Keyholders™ and these people will be able to access your Life Locker at the appropriate time; once you have passed away.

If you’ve ever been an Executor, or have ever talked to somebody who has just administered an estate, you will know how difficult it can be to gather the assets, and how impossible it is to know when that task is complete. There are millions of bank accounts around the World sitting dormant because the account holders died, and nobody knew they existed. If you look at online account policies you will often see terms like this;

If we continue to deem your account inactive for a period of eighteen consecutive calendar months, in order to safeguard your monies, we may withhold any remaining monies in your account and close your account. You may contact us to reclaim any such withheld monies at any time

In other words, if you don’t use your account, the money is lost.

Thankfully with services like My Life Locker integrated within LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk we can provide you with the tools to ensure that all of your assets can reach your beneficiaries.

lifelocker

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.

My Life Locker

I read a great article last week entitled “10 minute guide to estate planning“. The article starts by framing the problem; everybody knows that they should have their estate planning in place, but only 44% had done anything about it, but then the article strips away the complexities and conveys three simple messages; Get life insurance, prepare your estate planning documents, and then “Create a Master Document for Your Loved Ones”. We’ve discussed at length the creation of the estate planning documents in previous articles, and a Will, Power of Attorney and Living Will can be created easily and inexpensively at www.legalwills.ca, www.uslegalwills.com and www.legalwills.co.uk, but it was the reference to a master document for your loved ones that I found really interesting.

The article describes the master document as

An important aspect of estate planning involves sitting down and listing all of your assets and debts. Next to these items, state everything you want done to close them out and to put the assets in the hands of the people who you wish to have them… This document can be a tremendous help to your grieving family who may end up disagreeing about who gets what, when and how.

It makes complete sense to do this, but very few people do because it’s actually more difficult than it seems. However, recently I was fortunate to meet Sandra Tisiot, the creator of My Life Locker. I think Sandra may be the best person to introduce My Life Locker to you….

My Life Locker is perfect solution for organization everything important in one place all organized into “lockers”. The first locker prompts you to list your family contact information, the second covers important information like property details. You then go on to list financial information in locker three, and finally locker four has space for your professional contacts. If your Executor located your Will, and then saw your Life Locker sitting next to it, they would breath a sigh of relief. In a recent article we talked about the billions of dollars and pounds sitting in bank accounts of deceased individuals, that is never claimed simply because nobody knew it was there. My Life Locker solves this problem.

I recently had to cover a friend’s business interests while he went on vacation in Europe for a couple of weeks and we spent hours going through all of his contacts, procedures for dealing with things and explaining everything that he has to do to keep his business ticking over. It will be a little bit like that for your Executor trying to administer your estate, except they are usually given no information whatsoever. My Life Locker is a great solution for solving an age old problem for the Executor, by simply giving them the information that they need.

The difficulties facing an estate administrator

We have written posts in the past about the importance of choosing the right person as Executor of your estate, and discussed the responsibilities that come with this position. There are two specific challenges that face an estate administrator that are constantly brought to our attention at LegalWills.

The first is locating the Will. Almost every day we receive an email from somebody who is looking for a person’s Will. Somebody has died, they told everybody that they have a Will, but nobody can find it. We have discussed this previously and the most important piece of advice is to let your Executor know where your Will is stored. Where you store the document is a personal preference and there are pros and cons to every decision, but if your Executor doesn’t know where it is, there is little chance of your wishes ever being respected.

Once the Executor has found the Will, they are then granted the powers from the courts to administer the estate and this is where the work really starts. The Executor has to gather up all of the assets in the estate – but how will they know where all of the assets are held? Often a Will simply states that “my entire estate is to be shared in the following way; one third to person A, one third to person B….etc” How does the Executor know where to find every bank account, every insurance policy, every investment, every stock portfolio, or even that bundle under the floorboards! How does the Executor even know when everything has been identified.

The scope of this issue was brought into focus last week when Citibank created a 16 page supplement in the New York Daily News. The title read “The following persons appear from our records to be entitled to unclaimed property consisting of cash amounts of fifty dollars or more…”. I haven’t counted, but there appear to be thousands of names including the philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor who died in 2007.

A significant proportion of these thousands of abandoned accounts should have been part of an estate, but the estate administrator had no idea that they existed. This list is for Citibank in New York, and it is reasonable to assume that every bank in every country has a similar list. This amounts to billions of dollars, pounds and euros held by banks, unbeknownst to the estate executors.

Of course, it doesn’t make sense to list every account in one’s Will; it would mean updating your Will every time a bank account was changed, or a stock portfolio was cashed out. At LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk we encourage everybody to complete a form that allows them to itemize their personal assets as well as list important people to contact. This document does not have the same legal standing and does not need to be signed and witnessed; it can be updated any time an asset changes. It can then be stored with the Will so that the Executor has a complete inventory of assets at the appropriate time.

In our digital age of PayPal accounts, domain name purchases, online gambling accounts, blog revenues and other digital assets, it is more important than ever to communicate to your Executor exactly where your assets are held. Many people do not even know the true extent of their spouse’s accounts, and without a list stored with the Will, an Executor would never even know that they had missed an important or valuable asset.

Understanding Digital Death: Steps to Protect Yourself Online (Guest Post)

The following is a guest post from Will Eve of finder.com.au

There’s a growing awareness about the downside of living a life so intertwined with computers. First there was the the personal computer, an instrument that made work easier for so many occupations, but we did get up and walk away from it when our work was done. Even if we went back and used it again for recreational purposes most of us recognised the difference between reality and what our computers offered. The advent of the laptop brought us much closer to the digital age. We were now able to take our computers with us when we went outside of the office or home. The smaller note book made it easier again.

Our Physical Lives Are Now a Part of our Digital Lives

More recently we’ve seen a phenomenal increase in the use of the smartphone, which after all is really just a computer that you can hold in the palm of your hand. Then we were introduced to the iPad and tablet. All this development means our lives are becoming more and more involved with the digital world. All you need do is watch a crowd of people walking along a thoroughfare, relaxing in a park or attending a sporting event. A large proportion of them will have a mobile phone up to their ear. People travelling on trains and buses are commonly seen totally engaged with their laptops or smartphones. This has resulted in the following:

  • Online games and social interactions. The completion of a crossword puzzle in the daily newspaper or magazine has been replaced by people interacting with others anywhere in the world by playing scrabble and other like games on their computers. Social media has become the ‘in’ thing in all nations around the globe. Facebook and Twitter have untold millions of subscribers. We now do our banking online, we purchase items online, we sell things online, we get the latest local, national and world news online. In fact anything we don’t know we go online to get the answer. It all results in the fact that our whole live have been taken over and we now have a digital life that runs parallel to our physical lives.
  • What happens when we die? What happens to our digital life? The short answer is, nothing. It continues on as normal. We’re told that Facebook alone contains more than five million accounts belonging to people who have passed on. The mind only boggles at the number of other account throughout the world that remain active despite the persons, whose names they are in, being no longer with us.
  • The digital after life. Some people are referring to our online death after our physical death as being a digital afterlife and something that has to be attended to. Because so much of our private business is carried out online these days we all have to look at putting in place some sort of digital estate plan that will attend to these online accounts on our behalf when we can no longer do so ourselves. Some of the bigger search engines and social media sites are making attempts to help those left behind. Yahoo for instance will terminate an account on receipt of a death certificate. Twitter will archive all the tweets of a deceased account holder and pass them on to an appropriate survivor. However, there is a long way to go before the problem is solved completely.
  • One of the biggest problems is the necessity of having to protect our online IDs with user-names and passwords. Once you die your online ID lives on and will continue to do so if nobody can enter the program to close it down. This means all the family and holiday photos you have stored can no longer be accessed, Your emails accounts will continue. Even your PayPal account where you can have a lot of money stored that should rightfully go to your loved ones will remain on your PayPal account, theoretically forever.
  • You can make it much easier for your agent, or executor of your will, to get things sorted out for your loved ones benefit if you make an inventory of all the programs you have online. If you list every account you have, explain what it’s for and what you want done with it along with the relevant user-name and password, your agent, or executor, will then be able to enter the account and treat it as though it was either his or hers.
  • This brings up another question, that of the security of all this information. You won’t want all your online banking and other sensitive personal details kept where others can get access to it. You could save it all to a disk or flash drive and have it stored with your life insurance and disability policies. You could entrust it to a person whom you trust 100 percent but this would make it hard for you to change the passwords on a regular basis and if you were to die after you had changed the passwords but had not got around to altering the records on the disk or flash drive all your good intentions will have been for nothing.
  • To get over this problem there are a number of sites online that are dedicated to keeping passwords safe. These sites keep all your passwords and other vital information in storage where you can still access them at any time to change the details. Nobody else can gain entry to the site other than through a unique password. In this way all you need do is to have this password kept for your agent or executor and he or she can then go about what they have to do.