What would happen to everything you own if you were to pass away tomorrow? Do any of your family members or loved ones know where your online passwords are for everything? Do they have access to your Facebook account or to your bank account? Or would they be left […]
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.
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Thinking about retirement? Don’t forget about your tech.
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By Anne-Frances Hutchinson
Here’s an open secret about Americans on the cusp of retirement age: They know how to use technology. Having been in the workforce as the digital age gestated from a fever dream into the driver of nearly every aspect of work and life in the developed world, this cohort understands its transformative power at a level digital natives have yet to grasp. Over the next decade, roughly 132 million Americans 50 and older will spend over $84 billion annually on technology.
As they approach retirement, affluent, well educated seniors are still driving technological development, participating in the digital economy as it grows and changes, and preparing for an aging process that will be largely dependent on emerging technologies to increase satisfaction, comfort, and life expectancy.
However, one of the profound changes retirement brings is access to technology. Leaving the workplace can mean losing a wealth of expensive support, from high speed internet connections and the software programs that allow seamless communication, to hardware that can be impossible to afford on a budget. And yes, that includes the person in IT who knows how to convert documents into PDFs. (Here’s another deeply held secret from a boomer: They absolutely know how to do that. They just love to see your reaction when they ask for your help. Eyerolls are always funny.)
Teasing aside, here are five critical considerations to make before transitioning out of the tech rich workplace.
- Make cyber security a priority. The loss of a workplace IT infrastructure means heightened exposure to hacking, so deepening your personal knowledge about security breaches and investing in affordable, personal use security tools is a must. Don’t be put off by any implied condescension you might perceive by seeking simplified help – Internet 101.org is a great place to start the process.
- Forget about remembering passwords. Leaving the office shouldn’t mean swapping strong protection of digital assets for passwords that are easy to remember and a breeze for hackers to exploit. Encrypted password managers such as 1Password provide affordable protection, generous storage, and email support.
- Enroll in autopay. Just because you’re retired doesn’t mean the bills stop. Making sure they get paid automatically, on time, every month will take a huge weight off your shoulders. On the flip side, any income you have still have coming in: social security, a pension, etc., you can arrange to be automatically deposited in the account of your choosing. Being retired means you should be out there enjoying life, not spending several hours a week doing amateur accounting.
- Set up online trading. You want your money to last through a long retirement. Now that you have more time, you might want to take a more hands-on approach to your investments. Services such as Ally Invest and E-Trade make it simple and easy to manage your portfolio and do self-directed trades on a daily basis.
- Compromise smartly. The temptation to sacrifice capability for cost can be very compelling, especially when it comes to smartphones. While there is a fun new crop of flip phones hitting the market that may take you back to the simpler days of flip up and gab, like the updated foldable Motorola Razr, prioritize the features that are most important to you — whether it’s a great camera, the ability to use multiple apps, or mil-std ruggedization — and make sure the phone of your choice makes the grade. You’ll want something that can still keep up with your lifestyle and let you video chat with the grandkids.
- Think before you ditch. Switching away from a “does it all” desktop system to a tablet or laptop may make sense from a portability standpoint, but be sure your computer investments match the quality of life you’re expecting. Desktops can be much cheaper to buy than laptops, giving you the freedom to buy both. Desktop performance is better, more flexible, and far more robust than tablets; laptops that offer equivalent desktop performance are typically cumbersome and heavy despite being optimized for mobility. If you’re a gamer, crafter, or have a penchant for art, having a desktop in your post-work tech arsenal will be a very worthwhile spend.
- Plan your digital estate. You’re planning to leave your work environment, not your entire life, but now is the time to think about what may happen to your digital identity and it’s a risky aspect of estate planning to neglect. In the Digital Cheat Sheet, Everplans recommends the following steps to take:
- Make a list of all your digital assets and make a plan on how they should be accessed after your passing. This includes your personal data, passwords, and hardware.
- Choose an executor for these assets who will follow your wishes on erasing, preserving, or sharing data, and with whom you want your digital legacy to be shared.
- Store this information where it can be readily accessed by a trusted family member, attorney, or your appointed executor.
- Legalize your wishes. With the exception of Louisiana, Kentucky, and the District of Columbia, there are state provisions for digital asset legalization. Work with your estate planner to incorporate your digital assets into your will. Remember: Never include passwords or private data in your will, as it is a public document that anyone can access.
Retirement isn’t the end of your life, it’s the beginning of enjoying what you’ve worked so hard for. Set yourself up for success much the same way you did in your career. There’s a whole world of things to do that you might have missed out on. A smart retirement will enable you to make the most of your time while living on the go. Get after it!
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.
What happens to our data when we die? Elaine Kasket on a digital dilemma
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Elaine Kasket is a counselling psychologist based in London. Her first book, All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age, examines the ethical and technical issues surrounding our data when we die.
If I were to fall under a bus tomorrow, what would happen to my Gmail and Facebook accounts?
Under contract law, privacy ceases on the point of death. But what’s interesting about this area is that big tech treats the erstwhile account holder and their data almost with the same contractual reverence as they would when this person was alive. So they end up privileging that concept over the needs, requests and wishes of the next of kin.
But that’s not what relatives expect; they would assume to inherit data much like they would shoeboxes of letters, photographs and so on.
Exactly. In the UK laws of succession, the two tests are tangibility and value. So if something’s tangible, even if it has no value, you can execute it in a will. Or it will automatically pass to the next of kin if the estate goes to them. So people assume the digital stuff is going to obey the same rules, but it doesn’t.
Generally speaking, what’s the social media company response to relatives’ requests for access to their deceased’s accounts?
Something along the lines of: “We’d love to be able to help you with this but we’re not able to.” They say they are protecting the (technically nonexistent) right of privacy of the deceased. You could call it agency laundering.
Occasionally this attitude has been challenged in court…
One of the most ridiculous cases was where Hollie Gazzard was murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Her Facebook account contained photographs of her with her killer. Facebook told the family that they needed to protect Holly’s privacy by not allowing them to selectively edit her profile.
Hasn’t Facebook recently tried to address some of these problems?
Earlier this month it announced it will be using artificial intelligence to stop profiles from sending out troubling things such as birthday reminders and so on. But for every person who’s upset by a reminder there could be another family member who would mourn their loss. Because the thing is, grief is idiosyncratic. There is no rule book for grief. And if there were one, a profit-driven company, such as Facebook, shouldn’t be writing it.
Facebook’s business model is to collect data to encourage people to buy things. Dead people aren’t consumers. What’s the business case for maintaining memorial accounts?
There are several things. The only reason some people stay on Facebook is that there are memorials for people who are dear to them. And once you deactivate your account, the deceased user is no longer able to re-add you – you are locked out of the cemetery.
Another reason is that even if the person is no longer available to buy something, their data can still be analysed and be valuable to a company for a number of purposes.
They used to cull the accounts of deceased users, but there was user backlash from that. Ultimately, automatic profile retention is the least resource-heavy thing to do.
At some point there will be more dead Facebook accounts than live ones.
The Oxford Internet Institute recently predicted there could be 2bn dead Facebook accounts by the end of the century.
That’s a lot of data…
Although we’re doubling what we can store every couple of years, it’s not, like infinite – and our devices capture more and more stuff by default. That surplus data, either with the aid of artificial intelligence or human decision making will be jettisoned, and big tech will be making those decisions.
Meanwhile, people have to act like hackers to gain access to their relatives’ accounts…
They are forced to break the law. They are impersonating people, using other people’s passwords… but we let it slide, because what else can you do? I’m not sure if I’m happy to leave someone a set of my passwords; they might find things that were important, but they would have access to everything else. Even if one isn’t harbouring toxic secrets, that’s still quite a thing.
Belief in the afterlife is strengthened by the sense that the dead are remaining socially influential via the internet.
Like people, social networking sites, such as MySpace or Friendster, also die…
The Marie Kondo idea that you should be storing all your books, photographs and music in the cloud, so we have nice clean shelves, is great. But just be aware that your grandchildren might know nothing about you – unless someone is taking the time to think: that platform is becoming obsolete, let’s make sure we download an archive. Companies aren’t going to do this for you; they’re not humanitarians, they are profit-based companies. Look at the history of computing: coding changes, hardware changes, software changes. Your data won’t survive. Moreover, you can’t bequeath your collections of music or books – all you’ve done is purchased a user licence agreement limited by your lifespan. The music isn’t yours; what you have is permission to listen.
Have social media changed how we mourn?
It makes the deceased much more present. The industrial revolution, with its hospitals and suburban cemeteries, enabled us to keep death at arm’s length. But the internet is tailor-made for continuing bonds; it makes it exceptionally easy, because the dead live in tech already. There’s dead people’s data everywhere: their Amazon reviews, their Trip Advisor recommendations. You may encounter something that influences you and have no idea whether it is authored by a dead or a live person. The dead remain socially active in a way that is unprecedented. They are undifferentiated, ambiguously there.
You write about people who leave messages on memorial pages who often talk about “getting through” to the deceased…
The sociologist Tony Walter describes how the internet is a particularly amenable place for angels. Historically, angels were messengers between heaven and Earth, but now they inhabit the ether where we can readily access them. Lots of nonreligious people have a belief in the afterlife, and this is strengthened by the sense that the dead are remaining socially influential via the internet.
An idea explored by Black Mirror and others is that we could one day be able to upload the contents of our brain or our consciousness to the cloud and create a hologram or virtual version of ourselves, which people could continue to interact with. Is this wise?
I find it faintly narcissistic. These people are dealing with their own terror of not being alive. They assume people would still like to hear from them when they are dead! Moreover, you may well run into some of the same problems of digital legacy: the platforms need updating, the code ceases to work, and so on.
What’s the bare minimum you’d advise people to do?
It’s a good idea to clean your digital house frequently. If nothing else, you don’t want relatives buried under a hundredweight of undifferentiated data with no sense of what is important to you. The default is to become a digital extreme hoarder, with data up to the rafters. The things which are really important to you, the artefacts you want to pass on to future generations, put them in a physical form. You cannot trust corporations to safeguard your data.
• All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age is published by Little, Brown (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99