Digital Assets: Who can access my online accounts if I die?

digital assets estate planning lawyerChances are, if you are reading this Blog Post, you own Digital Assets and have one or more online accounts.  As Estate Planning Lawyers, we continue to see changes in the law to address our increasingly tech-savvy culture. The use of electronic information has continued to play a larger role in the Estate Planning and Administration we do for our clients.

Have you ever thought about what might happen to your Facebook account if you died?  Who would get your iTunes library and how would they access it?

Tennessee Legislature Passes Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act

The Tennessee legislature recently passed the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (the “Act”), which became effective July 1, 2016. The intent of the Act is to aid in a Fiduciary’s ability to access an individual’s Digital Assets.  A Fiduciary is someone either appointed by a person or a Probate Court Court to act on behalf of the person in the event of incapacity or death.  A fiduciary may be appointed by a person in a Power of Attorney or Last Will and Testament, or by a Court in a guardianship, conservatorship, or intestate estate proceeding.  The Act also attempts to protect a person’s privacy, as it also allows the person to restrict a fiduciary’s access to digital assets, and provides additional safeguards by allowing the Custodian of the asset to request certain documentation before providing requested information. A fiduciary granted access to digital assets is held to a fiduciary standard under the Act, requiring the fiduciary to act in the best interests of the person with a duty of care, loyalty and confidentiality.

What are Digital Assets?

The Act defines Digital Assets as “an electronic record in which an individual has a right or interest,” and this “does not include an underlying asset or liability unless the asset or liability is itself an electronic record.”  The Act does not necessarily grant the fiduciary access to a person’s cell phone, computer, tablet, etc., but this class of assets includes a wide variety of items, including:

  • assets from Twitter and Facebook accounts
  • assets such as PayPal accounts
  • iTunes accounts
  • Accumulated frequent flyer miles
  • Online banking or trading accounts.

How is Access Granted?

The Act lays out specific requirements as to how the fiduciary must go about requesting access to the digital assets depending on the nature of the fiduciary representation, the type of document (if any) granting the fiduciary the authority to access digital assets, and the depth of the information needed by the fiduciary.

What Should I do about my digital assets and online accounts?

Granting a fiduciary the authority to access your digital assets (or limiting their access) should be done with specificity.   You can and should address these issues in your Last Will and Testament and Power of Attorney.  You should also make sure that any usernames, passwords, and account numbers for your digital assets and online accounts are in a safe place so that your fiduciary can get this information and provide it if requested by a custodian (such as the bank, Facebook, etc.).

If you are concerned about your appointed fiduciary’s current potential access to your digital assets, you should consult with an attorney experienced in fiduciary matters, who can review the relevant documents and properly advise you about your specific situation.

What if I need access to someone else’s online accounts?

If you are currently in a fiduciary position and you need to obtain access to that person’s digital assets or records or online accounts, please be sure to consult with an estate planning attorney to find out how you should go about obtaining this information/access, because the procedures can differ based on your fiduciary role, the powers you have been granted, and the type of information you are trying to obtain.

Let us help you

Our Estate Planning Attorneys can help develop a digital assets plan to best suit your individual needs.  Visit our website to learn more about our work and call us today at 901-372-5003.

Don’t be like Prince: Get a Will.

prince died without a will, memphis estate probate lawyer

Learning from Prince’s Mistake

It’s been widely reported that Prince probably died without a Will. This has left many people wondering:

How could someone rich and famous like Prince die without a Will?

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people, even the super-wealthy, to to die without even the simplest form of an Estate Plan. While at least one source reports that Prince’s Estate may be worth less than what people think, this surprising omission of someone of Prince’s celebrity status should give us all cause to stop and think about what might happen to our own families and hard-earned assets in the event of an untimely death.

2 Simple Reasons to Have a Will or Estate Plan

When we meet with potential clients and give basic estate planning seminars, we stress the importance of having, at the very least, a basic estate plan in place. This is important because:

1. Your wishes will be known. Have you ever tried to guess what another person wants? This is why many of us find Christmas shopping very stressful. The only way you can be sure to “get what you want” is to properly (and legally) communicate your wishes and desires. Just telling someone won’t cut it. After all, neither a judge nor your family will be able to ask you after your death.

2. You can help prevent family feuds and division. You may think your family is so tightknit that they would never quarrel over your assets after you die. You may be right, but you may also be wrong. Why take the chance? Make your wishes so clear that your family members have nothing to fight about amongst themselves after your death.

An Estate Plan is important regardless of your financial status. You do not have to be “rich” to need a Will. Even if you think you don’t have enough assets to justify planning ahead, it is likely that your possessions have real meaning to family members or friends. It is also likely that you have a larger Estate than you may realize.

2 Simple Reasons People Don’t Have a Will or Estate Plan

1. Fear of Losing or Giving up Control. Like Prince, many people like to retain complete control over their assets and business affairs. There’s not a thing in the world wrong with this. However, having an Estate Plan does not mean that you lose control! In fact, Estate Planning is a way to extend the control over your affairs “beyond the grave.”

2. Death is an Unpleasant and Uncertain Event. People often put off any planning or do not want to think about their passing. It is easy to procrastinate and it always seems like planning can be left for another today. However, death is an unfortunate reality for us all. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

What happens without a Will?

If you don’t have an Estate Plan or Will, in Memphis and Nashville Tennessee, your Estate, like Prince’s, may become subject to state law and Probate Court orders. This is likely to lead to familial dissension and excessive fees and costs for the Estate, which in the end reduces the amount of assets remaining for your Beneficiaries. Your money may also wind up going to the Government! For example, in Prince’s case, the Probate Court has appointed a Corporate Executor for his Estate, and many attorneys will be involved because of the number of potential Beneficiaries. There will be many questions as to how the royalties and future earnings from Prince’s music will be handled. Estate taxes will have to be paid. All of these factors will lead to a lot of money being spent (and some might even say “wasted”). All of the headaches and money spent, as well as the publicity involved, could have been avoided, or at least minimized, if Prince had planned ahead by having a Will or Estate Plan.

Moral of the Story:  Don’t be like Prince.

Don’t be like Prince. Plan ahead now! Having an Estate Plan is easy, and every person can and should have one in place. A basic plan can be relatively inexpensive, even if drafted by a licensed Tennessee estate planning attorney, like the ones at Wiseman Bray PLLC.  We have offices in Memphis and Nashville. In Tennessee, and some other states, it is also possible, although often not recommended, for a handwritten Will to be valid. To read our blog post about handwritten wills, CLICK HERE.

Need a Tennessee Estate Planning Lawyer?

Call Wiseman Bray PLLC if you’re in the Memphis or Nashville area at 901-372-5003 or email us here.

Who are my Beneficiaries? A critical question in planning for the future.

beneficiary designations estate planning lawyer

How does Property Pass to Beneficiaries?

Do you know who your beneficiaries are? When we ask clients this question, their first response is often quick and affirmative. However, we frequently discover through the estate planning process that the beneficiaries listed on our clients’ life insurance policies and retirement accounts are not who they think they are, nor are they the intended recipients of the property.

One of the most common misconceptions we see is how property passes at someone’s death.  Accounts that have beneficiary designations  pass to the beneficiary or beneficiaries named on the beneficiary designation form for that account regardless of what your will or trust says.  So, for example, if my Will says that everything passes to my spouse at my death, but my beneficiary form on my life insurance names my children as beneficiaries, my life insurance proceeds  pass to my children and not to my spouse. Here are some examples of accounts that typically designate beneficiaries:

  • life insurance
  • retirement accounts
  • transfer on death accounts (TOD)
  • payable on death accounts (POD)

Periodically Review Your Beneficiary Designations

The  Supreme Court case of Kennedy v. Plan Administrator of DuPont highlights the unintended results that may occur if your beneficiary designations are not reviewed periodically.  In this case, William Kennedy named his wife, Liv, as the sole beneficiary of his pension and retirement savings plans at DuPont.  When the couple later divorced, the Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) provided that Liv gave up her rights to receive any benefits from William’s pension and retirement plan.  Unfortunately, however, the court order was never submitted to DuPont and the beneficiary was never changed.  When William later died, DuPont paid out the plan benefits to his ex-wife, Liv.  Their daughter, Keri, was appointed as Executor of William’s Estate and filed suit claiming that the Estate should receive his retirement benefits because the QDRO clearly provided that Liv had waived any interest she might have in those benefits.  The Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the Circuit Court in saying that DuPont properly paid the benefits to Liv and that Liv was entitled to the pension and retirement funds even though the parties were not married at the time of William’s death and the QDRO clearly provided otherwise.

Moral of the Story

The moral to the story is that the beneficiary designation governs. Thus, it is very important that you know who is named on your various beneficiary forms so that your property goes to the beneficiary or beneficiaries that you intend for it to go to.  It is clear that William did not intend for his benefits to go to his ex-wife instead of his daughter, but the Supreme Court held that the beneficiary designation governed and that DuPont properly paid the benefits to Liv.

Tips for Beneficiary Designation Forms

Here are some tips and common problems to watch out for with your beneficiary designation forms:

1. Do you know where the form is? Generally, employers maintain records of the form, but if they cannot find their form when the time comes, the burden may be on you to produce a copy of the form.

2. Is the form up to date? Changes in your life may require you to review the forms periodically. If you have had a recent marriage, divorce, birth or death in your family, it is important to review your beneficiary designations. And remember, your Will does not change who the beneficiary is on an account or insurance policy.

3. Do you have a contingent beneficiary named? If the beneficiary you have named dies before you or is involved in a common accident with you, you may not know who the benefits will go to if you do not name a contingent or secondary beneficiary.

4. Have you named a minor as a beneficiary? Minors cannot legally hold title to property, including these benefits. If you have named a minor, a guardianship may have to be established and administered through the Probate Court concerning applicable funds.

Want to talk it over with an Estate Planning and Probate Lawyer?

If you have questions regarding your beneficiary designations and how they factor into your Estate Plan, please call us at 901-372-5003 or email us today. We’re ready to help you plan for the future.

 

Probate Process: How long does it take?

probate process, how long does it takeHow long does the probate process take? I often pose this question at seminars and get a variety of answers. Two of my favorite answers are “years” and “forever.” While neither answer is correct, it typically indicates that someone in the room (or perhaps a friend or neighbor) has had a bad experience with Probate Court at some point. In Tennessee, a Probate Estate must remain open for a minimum of four (4) months from the time of first publication. This period is designed to give creditors time to come forward and assert a claim against the Estate.  An Estate must remain open the full four (4) months regardless of whether the deceased person had any debts.

Time Starts to Run on the Date of “First Publication”

When an estate is opened in Shelby County Probate Court, the clerk’s office notifies The Daily News, and they publish a public notice regarding the opening of the Estate, typically within a week of the opening of the Estate. This first publication marks the start of the four (4) months, and the Estate cannot be closed until 4 months after the date of first publication.

However, bear in mind that this is a minimum amount of time, and there is no guarantee that the Estate can be closed at the end of the 4 months. I frequently tell clients that 6-9 months is a more realistic average for a straightforward Probate Process. The “first accounting” is not due until 15 months from the opening of the Estate, so if the Estate is closed out within that 15 month period, you are still doing pretty well.

Why does the Probate Process take so long?

So what makes the probate process last beyond the 4 months? A number of factors often contribute to how long a Probate Estate is open. Preliminarily, there are 8-10 steps that must be completed for every Probate Estate regardless of the size of the Estate, the cooperation of the Beneficiaries, or the debts of the deceased person. If these steps have not been completed or if the proper letter has not been received from Tenncare of the Tennessee Department of Revenue, the Estate cannot be closed. If there are minor Beneficiaries involved and the Will does not contain instructions on holding those funds in trust, we often have to seek court guidance and have additional hearings regarding handling these funds. Likewise, if Beneficiaries are fighting, the Probate Process will often take significantly longer than the 4 month minimum. If the decedent left a number of debts, and creditors have filed claims against the Estate, each valid claim must be paid in full or settled before the Estate can be closed. If the decedent had property in more than one state, the process can take much longer. These are just a few of the factors that can contribute to a lengthier Probate Process.

Every Probate Case is Different

Although the correct answer is rarely, if ever, “years” and definitely not “forever,” the Probate Process can last much longer than Beneficiaries are expecting. The Probate Estate that is open for years is not the norm, but most attorneys who do a lot of Probate work will typically have at least a couple of cases that drag on for one reason or another. In many cases, where everything is straightforward, 6 months should be a reasonable estimation of how long it takes. Unfortunately, we often can’t predict when we open an Estate the circumstances that may arise, so while it may seem simple on the front end, it could also turn out to be more complex. If we know some of the complicating circumstances in the planning stages, we can often  incorporate strategies to avoid some of the Probate pitfalls.

Need help with Probate Court?

Please call us at 901-372-5003. We know you have a lot on your mind and the thought of going to court can be overwhelming. We are experienced probate lawyers and we can guide you through the Probate Process.

How to Avoid Probate

Did you know that you can eliminate the Probate Process altogether through revocable living trust planning? If you would like to learn more about Probate or about planning to avoid probate, please call us. We can guide you through an Estate Plan designed specifically for you and your family.