Ten years ago, I’d never have thought about writing about digital legacy planning. But when I think about my digital assets (photos, documents, music, blogs, business records, etc.) and my digital accounts (emails, bank accounts, subscriptions, etc.), I know I’ll want to provide for someone to handle them (1) […]
8 Documents That Are Essential to Planning Your Estate
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If you want loved ones to remember you fondly, tackle your estate-planning tasks. Your heirs will thank you for not leaving a legal mess to sort out.
Many of us want to get going on this planning, but don’t know where to start. Here’s what you should know about eight documents that can help you get your affairs in order.
If that sounds like a lot of paperwork, don’t worry: You probably won’t need every document. And if you’re wondering where to find the documents you do need, not to worry: Just head to our partner Rocket Lawyer, where you’ll find everything you need cheap.
1. Last will and testament
A will gives you the power to decide what is in the best interests of your children and pets after you’re gone. It also can help you determine what will happen to possessions with financial or sentimental value. It typically names an executor — someone who will be in charge of following your directions. Finally, you can include any funeral provisions.
Use your will to name guardians for those under your care, including minor children and pets. Designate any assets you are leaving for their care.
If you’re married, your spouse needs a separate will, AARP says.
In the absence of a will, a probate court will name an executor — typically a spouse or grown child — for your estate. Probate proceedings are a matter of public record. So keep private information — passwords, for example — out of your will, as that information could become part of a public document.
2. Revocable living trust
A living trust is another tool for passing assets to heirs while avoiding potentially expensive and time-consuming probate court proceedings.
You name a trustee — perhaps a spouse, family member or attorney — to manage your property. Unlike a will, a trust can be used to distribute property now or after your death.
If you have substantial property or wealth, a trust can provide tax savings.
ElderLawAnswers further explains the differences between trusts and wills. Creating a trust is not a do-it-yourself project. Get an attorney’s help.
3. Beneficiary designations
When you purchase life insurance or open a retirement plan or bank account, you’re often asked to name a beneficiary, which is the person you want to inherit the proceeds when you die. These designations are powerful, and they take precedence over instructions in a will.
Keep beneficiary designation papers with your estate-planning documents. Review and update them as your life changes.
4. Durable power of attorney
This document allows you to choose someone to act on your behalf, financially and legally, in the event that you can’t make decisions.
Don’t put off this chore. You must be legally competent to assign this role to someone. Older people worried about relinquishing control sometimes put off the task until they are no longer legally competent to do it.
5. Health care power of attorney and living will
To ensure that someone can make medical decisions for you in the event you become incapacitated, establish a health care power of attorney — also called a durable health care power of attorney. This is different from the previously mentioned durable power of attorney for financial and legal affairs.
A living will lets you explain in advance of your death what types of care you do and do not want, in case you can’t communicate that in the future. It’s strictly a place to spell out your health care preferences and has no relation to a conventional will or living trust, which deals with property.
“You can use your living will to say as much or as little as you wish about the kind of health care you want to receive,” says legal site Nolo in a detailed article.
6. Provision for digital assets
Decide what to do with your digital assets, including your computer hard drive, digital photos, information stored in the cloud, and online accounts such as Facebook, Yahoo, Google and Twitter. Be sure to include a list of your passwords.
“What Happens to Your Email and Social Media After You Die?” explains how to make these decisions.
7. Letter of intent
For instructions, requests and important personal or financial information that don’t belong in your will, write a letter. Use it to convey your wishes for things you hope will be done. For example, you may have detailed instructions about how you want your funeral or memorial service to be performed.
No attorney is needed. The letter won’t carry the legal weight of a will.
8. List of important documents
Make certain your family knows where to find everything you’ve prepared. Make a list of documents, including where each is stored. Include papers for:
- Life insurance policies
- Pension or retirement accounts
- Bank accounts
- Divorce records
- Birth and adoption certificates
- Real estate deeds
- Stocks, bonds and mutual funds
Another item helpful for your heirs is a list of bills and accounts, including contact information and account numbers for each, so your representative can settle and close these accounts.
Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.
Digital Assets after Death: Why Thousands of People are Choosing to Protect Them Through Their Will
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What happens to someone’s digital assets after death?
It depends on what is in their Will. A person’s Will covers what happens to their physical assets (such as property, bank account, money, shares etc.). However, it rarely covers what happens to their digital assets. This is more important than you might think.
A recent case highlights the importance of considering your digital assets along with your physical assets in your Will.
Key Takeaway Points
- Your digital assets (including all your digital devices and the data and information held on them such as photos, videos, documents, applications, music, software etc.) should be included in your Will. Otherwise, your family, friends, business associates etc. may need to obtain a court order to access them.
- If your family or business needs to wait to access your digital assets then they may lose money due to missing information, documents, photos etc. or through not having access to your PayPal account, business web site, on-line store, social media accounts, etc.
- Once they have obtained a court order, your family or business associates may be able to access all your on-line accounts, private folders, cloud based images and videos etc. some of which you might have wanted deleted or erased before giving them access.
- With more people storing more personal information and data digitally and many individuals having on-line accounts with credit (e.g. PayPal, share trading accounts etc.) and money making services (such as on-line stores, lucrative web sites etc.), it is increasingly important to have these covered in your Will.
- A Digital Assets Directory held by your solicitor can list and include the login details for all your hardware, software, on-line accounts, web sites, etc. and what you want to have happen to them on your death. It may be that you want to have some assets transferred and some erased before your loved ones or business associates have access to them. You can state your wishes in this directory.
Else Solicitors maintain a Digital Assets Directory which can be mentioned in your Will. This gives specific directions to your Executors to access your devices and accounts (along with the required login details) and what they are to do with the various digital assets held on them.
You can also include specific gifts of digital photos/music libraries etc. in your Will to ensure your wishes are clear. If you would like to update or write a Will that includes your digital assets and gives you the peace of mind that they will be dealt with according to your wishes, then please contact our Head of Wills and Probate, Kathryn Caple, on 01283 526230 or at email@example.com.
What are Your Digital Assets?
Your digital assets include your:
- Digital music players (e.g. iPod)
- Digital cameras
- e-readers (e.g. Kindle)
- External hard drives and flash drives
Along with any information or data that is stored on these or in the cloud, such as:
- Personal photos and videos
- Purchased or your own music, film and TV programmes
It also includes all your on-line accounts such as:
- e-mail accounts and their content
- Social media
- Shopping accounts
- Photo and video sharing
- Any website or blogs you manage
It also includes domain names and your intellectual property including copyrighted materials, trademarks, and any code you may have written and own.
Many accounts that may have a positive balance are held entirely online such as your:
- PayPal account;
- Digital currencies like BitCoin;
- Gambling sites;
- Share trading services;
- Points accumulated in loyalty programs etc.
It is important that you outline what you want to have happen to these including which data, photos, videos, music etc. should be:
- Transferred to family members, friends, or business colleagues
- Archived and saved
- Deleted or erased
What Happens if my Digital Assets Aren’t Covered in My Will?
A recent case highlights the problems of not including your digital assets in your Will.
A 20-year old man died following a brutal assault on Halloween in 2015. In the summer 2016, his father, Colin, was told by Apple that he must obtain a court order to access the photos and memories on his murdered son’s computer.
Colin had provided Apple with death and probate certificates but was told that he would need a court order to access the data on his son’s Macbook. The issue is that computers along with other digital devices and on-line accounts are password protected. In this case, the data and computer belonged to his son but as he did not have the password, Apple controlled the access to this data.
An Apple spokesman said: “In the absence of permission for third party access to an account, it is impossible to be certain what access the user would have wanted and we do not consider it appropriate that Apple make the decision. However, in such cases, we can assist subject to an appropriate court order.”
This means that his family must seek a court order to access his photos and memories.
In certain situations, this may have financial, as well as emotional implications. For example, if someone needs to access your on-line store or if your business needs the documents or information that you were working on or access to their own web site that you managed on their behalf.
Note: many web services and social media sites require you to sign their Terms and Conditions. In some cases, these terms will prevent your family, friends and colleagues from accessing your accounts even if they have your login and password details. So, it is important that you give the relevant people specific authority to use these accounts in your Will.
There is no easy answer as the law is primarily focused on physical possessions. However, by identifying your digital assets and stating what is to happen to them then your wishes are recorded and known. It is important that you create your digital legacy and with things changing constantly the best way to achieve this is by using a Digital Assets Directory, such as the one maintained by Else.
If you are concerned about what happens to your digital assets on death and who will and who will not have access to them then you are invited to contact our Head of Wills and Probate, Kathryn Caple, on 01283 526230 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
She will explain your options and how our Digital Assets Directory works so that you can rest assured that your wishes will be respected.
Get Your Digital Accounts Ready In Case of Death
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Antonio Giovanni Pinna
On March 7, 2019, Myrna M. DeLeon passed away, days before her 65th birthday. “Her death was completely unexpected,” said her daughter and my brother-in-law’s wife, Casey. In the emotional aftermath for the family, one thing made the grieving process less stressful: Myrna’s “in case of death” preparations. She had filed important documents in a safe and kept a categorized “little black book of information.”
“She was a nurse who was organized in the operating room, and she took that skillset of organization and advanced thinking into our home life as well,” Casey said. “For example, ‘B’ was not for people with the last name starting with B, but for banks and other financial institutions. It listed account numbers for policies and phone numbers to call for claims.”
Casey and her brother had set up their mom’s phone and email, so they knew her passwords for those, which proved essential. “All of her contacts were in her cellphone, and I needed those to inform them of Mom’s passing. I also needed to ask her colleagues how their union benefits worked so I could get answers as quickly as possible.”
Preparing for your eventual demise is a gift your loved ones will appreciate even as they mourn your loss — and it will give you peace of mind in the present, too. Most people have thought about setting up a will and doing other estate planning, but you should also arm your family with the most essential information they’ll need in the immediate days and weeks after you’re gone, preferably in one easy-to-access place. Here’s how to set up a digital version of Myrna’s “little black book” for simple and secure information sharing with family members and trusted friends.
Step 1: Share your account logins and other secure information with a password manager
Everyone should use a password manager, software that securely and conveniently stores all your account logins as well as notes you want to keep under virtual lock and key. With 1Password or LastPass, Wirecutter’s favorite password managers, you can share the critical information your family will need to know after you’re gone, such as important contacts and insurance details. The individual plans offer basic sharing features, but for these purposes a family plan is better because it provides accounts for your whole family.
With 1Password for Families ($60 per year), up to five people get their own account, you can easily move or copy items across accounts, and a designated person can help someone else in the plan recover their master password. LastPass Families ($48 per year) offers similar features for up to six people. Wirecutter prefers 1Password for its combination of security, compatibility with various devices, and ease of use, but if you want to save a few bucks a year, LastPass is a good option.
To share vaults in 1Password for Families or folders in LastPass Families, the process is roughly the same:
- Click People in 1Password or Manage Family in LastPass, and invite members via email.
- Once they accept your invitation, each family member creates a master password for their account and gains access to the shared vaults or folders.
- Each family member can then add passwords, secure notes, bank info, contact info, files, and more in the shared vaults or folders.
To access all this information, the only thing each family member needs to remember is the one master password they set up for their account.
Step 2: Record and save emergency info
In addition to passwords, you should make other personal information readily accessible. These items include:
- Instructions in case of death: Be sure to include details such as burial or living-will wishes.
- Important logins or security codes that aren’t website logins: List your computer password, your phone PIN, the code to the fireproof safe, and so on.
- Important contacts: Indicate who to contact at your workplace, as well as your lawyer, accountant, will executor, and insurance agents.
- Locations of valuables and critical papers: Note the whereabouts of wills, passports, Social Security cards, birth certificates, and any other legal documents that are difficult to get copies of.
- Recurring-bills details: Specify when the bills are due and how they’re paid (if they’re autopay or where to send a check).
- Financial account details: List your retirement and investment accounts, insurance policies, bank accounts, and credit cards.
You can create a secure note in your password manager for each of the items above. Or, if you want a free option or if some family members aren’t likely to use a new app, you can create a password-protected spreadsheet that contains this information. We’ve created an emergency-information template as an Excel spreadsheet (which you can import into Google Sheets following these instructions from How-To Geek) for you to get started.
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Step 3: Set up dead-man switches and assign custody for your digital accounts
A dead-man switch is a security feature on trains that requires operators to hold a handle on a control board so that if they let go, the switch applies the emergency brakes. A dead-man switch in non-transit terms notifies loved ones and can disable your accounts if you fail to respond to prompts. This feature is especially useful for people who live alone, because you want others to notice you’re gone as soon as possible. Google is perhaps the most important account you might want this feature for, if you use Gmail or store files in Google Drive: You can instruct the Inactive Account Manager to either delete your data or share your Google accounts with someone you trust after a period of inactivity.
Pick one person to manage your social media accounts to either preserve your memory or delete those accounts. Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Twitter, and other social media accounts all offer options for enabling your loved ones to manage your accounts, but you’ll need to change those settings before you die, of course.
Step 4: Drill practice — teach your loved ones how to survive without you
After you’ve done all the above, you should share the details with your family (you can also share select information in the password manager with a power of attorney or a trusted friend). Make sure they accept the password manager invite, install the apps, and know how to use them. Set up a calendar reminder to update your info at least once a year. And since no one likes talking about death, have that talk while you’re healthy so that your family won’t worry unnecessarily. Reassure them that all this preparation is a “just in case” measure, and you’re doing it for everyone’s peace of mind.
[ If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources. ]
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A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.