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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.
Website that helps you plan for death finds success with millennials
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Liz Eddy has lost track of how many times she’s told the story that led her to co-found Lantern, a website that helps people tackle the complex logistics of losing someone they love and also plan for their own deaths.
That story starts with a phone call on a Saturday morning from a nursing home with news that Eddy’s grandmother had died. Two police officers and a nurse greeted Eddy in the room where her grandmother’s body lay.
“They looked at me and said, ‘What do you want to do?'” recalls Eddy, who was 27 at the time. “I had no idea what to turn to … and really was just thrown into a rapid Google search where I typed in what do you do when someone dies?”
“I was just thrown into a rapid Google search where I typed in what do you do when someone dies?”
Eddy, who lost her father as a child, anticipated this moment. Her grandmother, who was frail, had done some pre-planning. She’d written a will, completed an advanced directive for her medical care, and told Eddy where she kept important paperwork and belongings.
But Eddy quickly learned that there’d been oversights, including how she might close certain accounts, stop auto-refill prescriptions, and find online passwords. Eddy figured she’d rely on a comprehensive online resource that could walk her through what to do but found none. Instead, she embarked on a “scavenger hunt of websites” for answers.
“I fully expected to find something like Lantern,” she says.
In the midst of coping with her grief and trying to settle her grandmother’s affairs, Eddy walked in the door of her best friend Alyssa Ruderman’s home, and said, “We’ve got to do something about death.”
The pair launched Lantern last fall with $890,000 in pre-seed funding. The website offers free checklists for users who need to plan a funeral, help dealing with logistics that follow a funeral, or assistance sorting out their last wishes in advance of their own death. The site has thousands of users, and to Eddy’s surprise, 40 percent of them are 35 and younger.
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Lantern’s appeal to millennials speaks to a number of trends. They may help older parents plan for what happens when they die and then decide to make similar arrangements for themselves. Accustomed to having everything in their lives optimized or organized by a digital tool, the 35-and-under crowd may view online end-of-life planning as a helpful service like any other they use.
In general, talking about dying seems less taboo to many millennials. They encounter the “positive death” movement online, which aims to make conversations about death normal and routine. But millennials also live in a world that seems beset by crisis, whether that’s mass shootings, climate change, or coronavirus. Contemplating what the end looks like is part of being alive.
Anita Hannig, an associate professor of anthropology at Brandeis University who studies death and dying, says people — not just millennials — increasingly want to express their unique selves in death as in life.
The challenge is getting people comfortable enough to consider what that looks like. Eddy and Ruderman have designed Lantern to sound like a compassionate friend who knowingly takes your hand. The site isn’t morbid but instead offers practical information about the choices we can make before we die, like hiring a death doula and how to write a will. Users can compare different burial options, learn how to select life insurance, and explore how they want to be remembered online.
“A lot of people still think that if you’re talking about death too much, there’s an eerie way you’re bringing it about,” Hannig says. “In some ways, having a website like this [is] making death so much more manageable so that you can focus on the actual process of death and dying when it happens.”
Viana McFarland, a 25-year-old New Yorker, discovered Lantern after an employer-sponsored financial planning workshop prompted her to think about what might happen to her belongings and modest savings after she died. After searching Reddit and Google for resources, she found Lantern.
“There were small things I didn’t think about,” McFarland says.
That included the specifics of her burial. McFarland learned that she could let her body decompose in a “mushroom suit,” which hastens the breakdown of a corpse using mushroom spores and other microorganisms. She explored how to donate organs and leave money to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Most of all, McFarland wanted to spare her loved ones stress, confusion, and conflict. The time she spent on Lantern felt useful and productive.
“I guess younger people, with more resources at our hands, might become informed sooner or in a different way than our parents and grandparents were,” says McFarland.
More than three dozen articles on Lantern offer advice and insight on common questions. Its checklist offers a step-by-step guide to managing your last wishes. Tasks include making a funeral financial plan, safely storing financial information so it can be accessed by a loved one, and writing a last will and testament.
Lantern is also sentimental. The checklist prompts users to reflect on their legacy, asking about the three best decisions they ever made, what advice they’d give to their younger selves, and what they’d want their grandchildren to know about them.
“These questions were really developed because we started to realize that people don’t ask these questions of their loved ones, and it’s often the thing you think about when they’re gone,” says Eddy, who personally longs to know stories from her father’s life.
While it’s crucial to record the practical and sentimental information, Lantern must also deliver on keeping it secure. The site uses encryption and currently doesn’t collect information it doesn’t feel equipped to protect, such as passwords, wills, and Social Security numbers.
Instead, its business model is based on referring users to services that specialize in certain products, and which Eddy and Ruderman have personally vetted. For estate planning, Lantern recommends Legal Zoom. To help loved ones close online accounts, it suggests the password manager 1Password. Lantern can receive a referral fee when its customers sign up for such services. Eddy and Ruderman are also exploring pitching Lantern to organizations, like life insurance companies and hospitals, whose clients need the information the site has to offer. They’re making the same case to human resources departments who could use Lantern as a benefit for employees who, like McFarland, don’t know how to start end-of-life planning.
Though Lantern will probably offer a premium subscription to users in the future, Eddy and Ruderman are adamant that its basic how-to content and checklists will never be paywalled.
“We don’t think people should not have access to this information because they do not have means,” says Eddy.
The company can take that stand because it’s a public benefit corporation, which means it plans to pursue a mission-driven approach while also seeking a return for investors.
“Our vision is to be the central resource that any one person uses to navigate their life before and after a death.”
Nancy Lublin, an entrepreneur who is the founder and CEO of Crisis Text Line and the former CEO of DoSomething.org, made an angel investment in Lantern. Lublin knows Eddy and Ruderman from their previous roles at Crisis Text Line and DoSomething.org, respectively.
She said in an email that Lantern is poised to serve a “huge untapped market. Millennials, in particular, are bound to find Lantern appealing.
“How the heck are people going to deal when their parents and grandparents (fyi: enormous boomer generations) pass away?” wrote Lublin, noting that millennials use digital tools to find everything from roommates to lovers to marijuana. Of course they’d want something similar to help them manage death.
Eddy and Ruderman are aiming to become the first thing anyone turns to when it’s time to grieve a loved one or plan for the end of their own life.
“Our vision is — and always will be — to be the central resource that any one person uses to navigate their life before and after a death,” says Ruderman. “That is our North Star.”
Eddy is buoyed by the possibility that she’s helping others avoid what she experienced following her grandmother’s death: “You don’t have to be forced to pick the first thing you see on Google,” she says.
Please get your digital affairs in order
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I really wish I hadn’t had cause to write this piece, but it recently came to my attention, in an especially unfortunate way, that death in the modern era can have a complex and difficult technical aftermath. You should make a will, of course. Of course you should make a will. But many wills only dictate the disposal of your assets. What will happen to the other digital aspects of your life, when you’re gone?
There are several good guides to “digital wills” and one’s “digital legacy” out there, including e.g. handling your Facebook and Google accounts, and I encourage you to both go to those links and research the subject further. A few things seem particularly worth noting, though.
One is that this is yet another reason to use a password manager such as LastPass or 1Password . That in turn becomes an itemized list of your online accounts, and comes with a built-in recovery mechanism which can be used to pass them on to your survivors and/or heirs. LastPass (my password manager of choice) actually has a detailed guide to “preparing a digital will for your passwords,” and third-party guides to using 1Password for this purpose exist as well.
Another is the problem of two-factor authentication. What happens in case of an accident which also destroys your phone or Yubikey? Or if your heirs can’t get past your phone password? Do yourself and them a favor: create 2FA backup codes, and add them to your password-manager emergency-recovery kit.
The more technical you are, the more complex your digital affairs are. For most people we’re just talking about email, social media and photos. But for technical people, and in particular developers, things get more complicated. Do you own domains? Do your heirs even know you own domains, and who the registrar is? Are they technical? If not, by the time they figure that out, the domains may well have expired. Do you have services running on AWS or GCP or Digital Ocean? Do you have private GitHub repos, or public ones with a nontrivial number of stars / forks / issues / wiki pages? Do you administer a Slack workspace?
If you find yourself nodding along to the above, you may want to identify a separate “technical executor” and give them some guidance regarding what you want done with all of the above. Even if they have access, nontechnical people may not really understand that guidance. A little advance work can make it substantially easier for those tasked with taking care of your affairs.
Finally, what about any cryptocurrency you might personally hold? Generally, cryptocurrency wallets come with some sort of recovery seed. Is yours in a safety deposit box somewhere? Do your heirs know it’s in a safety deposit box somewhere? If you want to pass your bitcoins on to them, you’re probably going to have to let them know. (Obviously there is a security trade-off here; depending on how much we’re talking about, you may wish to be more or less cautious about this.)
So, to summarize: Do further research on digital wills, and construct one. Use a password manager, which acts as an itemization of your online accounts and ensure your heirs can access its emergency recovery key. Provide them 2FA backup codes as well, and recovery seeds for your cryptocurrency wallets if any. Identify a technical executor as and if appropriate. Also — and this is pretty key — make sure that a few trusted people know you’ve done all this. Won’t do them much good otherwise.
You may well even have occasion to thank yourself for it, in case of some hardware loss or disaster. Regardless, your heirs will definitely thank you. None of us think that we’ll meet our demise randomly, without warning — but I’m here to tell you, from grim recent experience, it does happen. Be prepared.
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.