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Estate planning is one of those pesky things you know you absolutely should do, but it tends to get pushed to the bottom of your continuous to-do list. Even the best laid plans to make this the year of finally getting your estate plan in order, life happens and things can get hectic. Unfortunately, when you or your loved one needs an estate plan the most, such as in the tragic situation of unexpected disability or death, it’s not readily available.

Together, let’s tackle at least this part of “adulting.” Together, we’re going to make this year your most prepared one yet! And, in the spirit of a fresh start—a new year—here are six resolutions to set you up for estate plan super success.

Overcome Your Excuses.

It’s understandable why I often hear the same excuses from folks who should have an estate plan (aka everyone older than 18, regardless of age, debts, assets, and marital status), but don’t. Procrastination is a natural part of human nature, especially when you’re putting off perceived conversations on uncomfortable topics like money, death, and taxes. Yet, most people, once they learn the benefits which accrue to a completed estate plan, initial discomfort fades. So, let’s eliminate the three most common excuses:

Not enough time or too busy.

Let’s be honest, there’s never enough time. There never will be. The (sometimes cruel) irony of estate planning is that it’s there for you and your family when you’ve literally run out of time. You’ll be happy to know the bulk of time needed for an estate plan (if you work with a professional…and you should) is thinking about, and communicating, what you want to happen with your assets upon passing. Who do you want to be your named as beneficiaries? Who do you want to serve as guardians to your kids?Also, you’ll need to consider carefully who you want to be your financial and health care agents in the case of disability.

(Note that such communicating can be easily done through a tool like my estate plan questionnaire.)

I don’t know where to start.

As excuses go, this has some validity, but is easily quashed with a few tools that are available to everyone for free. First, read my post on all the basics of estate planning to get familiar with the six key documents. Second, fill out my free, no-obligation estate plan questionnaire. Truly, estate planning (at least my process), is just five easy steps from start to finish.

It’s too expensive to make an estate plan.

There’s no one-size-fits-all for estate plans. Therefore, costs will depend on your estate’s size, complexity, and your goals. I’ll be completely clear on the exact costs up front, and that’s a guarantee. This is a major reason why filling out the estate plan questionnaire is such an important first step. Through your completed questionnaire, I can tell what you need, make a recommendation, and give you an exact price.

Keep in mind that it will almost certainly be more expensive for your family and loved ones if you die intestate (without a will). It will not only cost them monetarily, but also, much worse, emotionally as well, the process can be shockingly slow, tedious, and create unnecessary conflict.

man writing down ides in notebook

Organize your digital asset information.

Think of all the information pertinent to your personal and professional life and finances that you have on your computer. Think of all the important data that’s held entirely in online accounts. Often things like your email accounts, online banking, and storage accounts, for example, are referred to as digital assets. Access to these digital assets will be important for your chosen executor or trustee to handle and settle your estate. A solid estate plan will account for these digital assets and specify who you want to have access to all this data information in order to transfer/settle/close accounts appropriately. Additionally, you’ll want to have a separate, secure document or account (like LastPass, for instance) that which lists your all accounts and their login information.

Be Resolute with Revisions

If you already have an estate plan, do a happy dance! You are way ahead of about 60% of the population, which doesn’t even have a basic will (or trust) in place.

While estate plans never expire, they do need to be updated and kept current. If you have a major life event, it may well warrant revisiting your estate plan.  Such life events include marriage or divorce, if you establish residency in a new state, the birth of a child, the loss of one of your beneficiaries/executors, or if your financial situation changes significantly.

Speaking of change, remember too that state and federal laws are perpetually changing and when certain rules change, so too must your estate plan. Case in point? The “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017,” AKA the new GOP tax bill. For instance, the changes to the federal transfer tax exemptions could impact decisions as to if a certain type of trust is applicable. Again, this is where an experienced professional estate planner, whose job it is to stay up on these policy changes so you don’t have to, is beneficial.

Check your Marks

The Gordon Fischer Law Firm Ultimate Estate Planning Checklist makes it easy to visualize your completion rate of all the important documents and related tasks. It’s an easy to read, handy dandy cheat sheet of items to accomplish to get you from zero to superhero in no time.

Ultimate Estate Planning Checklist

Plan for an Impact

There are a multitude of ways to practice impactful charitable giving. One incredibly easy way is to name charities near and dear to your heart as beneficiaries in your estate plan. The resolution here? Think about what charities you would like to give to, how much (a figure or percentage), and, if you already have an estate plan, review it. If it doesn’t include your chosen charities, it’s time for an update!

Transform Talk into Trust

When making estate planning decisions it’s important to discuss said decisions with your family (and others included in the plan). Communicating in advance and ensuring your loved ones fully understand the “what” and “why” means there’s a significantly better chance your wishes will be respected and executed fully as you intended. The worst-case scenario in estate planning is litigation over what the deceased (or critically disabled) individual wanted. For instance, if you have an end-stage medical condition, the last thing you want is family fighting over your health care power of attorney or living will. These conversations can be challenging, but ultimately should be conducive to a peaceful transition of assets, reduction of tension between beneficiaries, and a clear understanding of what was communicated and recorded.

talking over coffee

Creating an estate plan that achieves your goals is a resolution you can DEFINITELY keep this year (even if that low-carb diet resolution doesn’t quite make it past January). The time it takes is nothing in comparison to the time it will save your loved ones. Ditto, dollars! Plus, the peace of mind that comes with knowing your affairs are in order if something were to happen is invaluable. This is your year to be prepared. Let’s get started. Contact me at any time via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or phone (515-371-6077) and in the meantime fill out the Estate Plan Questionnaire.

thanksgiving thankful

The Gordon Fischer Law Firm team would like to wish you a very happy Thanksgiving. We hope that you have the opportunity to spend quality time with your loved ones. We’ve taken a moment this holiday to take a step back and think about all we have to be thankful for. We owe so much to our clients, friends, and families who have helped make this year a successful one.

https://www.facebook.com/gordonfischerlawfirm/photos/a.784466871643829.1073741830.766092603481256/1509403912483451/?type=3&theater

Here are just a few of the things we have to be exceedingly grateful for:

  • To get to work with amazing clients and wonderful colleagues.
  • The opportunity to help five different Iowa-based charities incorporate as tax-exempt nonprofits.
  • To chance to have given over 10 presentations to amazing groups of people on topics ranging from business succession planning to digital assets in your estate plan to the benefits of special needs trusts.
  • Being entrusted with drafting (and signing) more than 50 estate plans…which is more than 50 people who were able to pursue their estate planning goals, achieve a piece of mind, and set a plan in place for the future.
  • Getting to live in and work toward maximizing charitable giving in Iowa in our respective, wonderful communities.

But, really, this is a short list—the tip of the turkey, if you will—of what we’re perpetually thankful for.

Wishing you full bellies and hearts today,

Gordon Fischer and Team

How many times during the day, without even thinking about it, do you use a digital account? Twenty? Fifty? More? Think about it, within the space of just a few minutes you’ll login to your work email, post to your Facebook account, upload files to Dropbox, and check your credit card statement from your banking app. There’s no doubt digital accounts are a regular part of the hum of daily life. A huge amount of your personal and financial information is not only held online, it’s held entirely online, and nowhere else.

Fingernails on a Macbook

Just as dying without a will can cause grave stress and even anguish to your loved ones, dying without passing along information and instructions on your digital accounts can cause major headaches. Considering that you may well have dozens or even a hundred different digital accounts, this represents a huge challenge to your executor.

Defined broadly as any multimedia, website login, online account, hardware, and/or software — your digital assets can quickly accumulate and represent a vast amount of information, both personal and professional. (Digital assets encompasses tools for both personal or professional use).

Anything from your Facebook business page to your Paypal account is counted as a digital asset. When you pass away, these accounts will (presumably) need to be accessed by your executor. Which is weird, when you think about it, considering all the time we spend on anti-virus software, reporting spam, and avoiding hacks of our online selves. These accounts will need to be used totaling up all your assets and finalizing your affairs. Your online bank or credit union records will be used for the former. Shutting down your social media profiles will be part of the latter. In any case, an executor needs access.

The law and the online world have had a rocky relationship thus far. There are so many competing principles, including privacy, ownership interests, ability of companies to freely contract with customers, and a probate code that in many ways is more attuned to the 1800s than the 2000s. These clashing concepts means we only now are beginning to codify solutions to the online world issues and problems.

For example, how should the law handle terms-of-service agreements, after one party to the agreement has died? You remember that little box you check every time you update your computer or get a new account. All that small print includes terms-of-service agreements to which you agreed. These agreements, in addition to state and federal privacy laws, forbid unauthorized access to digital accounts.

social media on iphone

Enter the 2015 Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act. (Try saying that five times fast!) This statute’s title is legal speak for, “Here’s what you do with someone’s digital accounts like email and social profiles and financial institution accounts after they die.” It provides (relatively clear) rules so an executor can effectively manage a decedent’s digital accounts without violating any laws (like the terms-of-service agreements).

Iowa is one of the majority of states which enacted the Digital Assets Act, but only recently. Governor Branstad signed Senate File 333, the Iowa Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, on April 20, 2017.

The Digital Assets Act gives you the power to plan for the management and disposition of your digital assets in similar ways to your planning for disposition of tangible property. In case of conflicting instructions, the Digital Assets Act provides a three-tiered system of priorities:

Tier One

Just like a beneficiary on an account trumps what’s written in a will, if a service provider like Google offers a mechanism for the account holder to outline their wishes post-mortem, then that tool is used as the primary instruction. Note that other tools, like Twitter, have a specific policy involving steps like submission of a death certificate by an authorized representative. But, if a digital service offers you the option to set what happens upon your passing—who should be notified or has access to the account—use it.

social media buttons

Tier Two

If an online account doesn’t offer any sort of contingency plan, then put directions for digital assets in your will, and in your powers of attorney, and in trust agreements, if applicable. If nothing’s specified with the service provider, then directions in an estate plan are the next, best clear intention. Don’t rely on general definitions of the executor’s powers, or what “assets” mean, to wrongly assume these cover your digital assets. A written statement(s) ideally gives your executor equal access to what you had during life. Considering you could have dozens or even hundreds of online accounts, include an overarching, general statement that includes any account owned by the decedent. Consider using specific instructions for intentions on particular accounts.

You should include these instructions in your estate planning documents even if you’ve designated an account executor with the service provider . . .  it doubles down on your wishes.

Tier Three

If digital assets aren’t accounted for by a service provider tool or in an estate plan, then the determination of how the assets may be dealt with falls to the dreaded service agreement. Such agreements typically prohibit anyone accessing the account aside from the owner.

finance on phone with laptop in background

Easy Steps to Take

Beyond knowing these three tiers of the Digital Assets Act, there are a few (relatively) easy steps you can take to ensure your digital assets are both accessible and accounted for:

  1. Consider a password manager like LastPass. With this tool there’s one password to login and then the executor could see all the sites you use regularly. In a way it’s like a net worth statement of investments . . . but for accounts.

 

  1. In addition to a password manager, write down an inventory of your accounts and log-in information; keep it secure and updated. Of course, don’t put this login info in your estate plan documents. Give clear instructions to your trusted family member or friend as to where to find this document.

 

  1. You’ll want to consider what you want your executor to be able to access. Do you want them to be able to read all your private emails and Google+ Hangout chats? If not, you may specify limited access.

 

  1. This goes without saying, but think long and hard about precisely who you want to have access to your online accounts. Someone may be qualified to be your Financial Power of Attorney agent, but entirely unqualified to handle your digital accounts. You’ll need to consider both trustworthiness and tech savvy and tech aptitude in your decision.

double computer screen

Don’t Just Tweet About It, Talk About It

If you don’t have an estate plan yet, the best place is to start with my Estate Plan Questionnaire. It’s free and provided at no obligation.

If it’s time to update your estate plan to include digital assets, I would love to discuss your situation. Reach out at any time by email, gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, or cell phone, 515-371-6077.