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.

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 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

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.