What’s Involved in an Estate Inventory? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

If you are named as executor of an estate, you will be tasked with identifying all the assets of the decedent. Let’s look at some of the options you may have for identifying assets:

  • The deceased’s will if they have one
  • Their financial statements or legal documents
  • Their recent tax returns
  • Abandoned asset database searching; and
  • A public property records search.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “What Is Included in an Estate Inventory?” says you may also be able to find assets for an estate inventory by talking to the decedent’s financial advisor, estate planning attorney, or relatives. An executor must be as thorough as possible, so the final inventory list submitted to the probate court is accurate and complete.

If you are planning your estate, you can make this job easier for your executor by creating an estate inventory yourself. Keep a copy of this inventory with a copy of your will, if you have one in place. (If you do not have a will, draft one sooner rather than later.) If you pass without a will in place, your assets would be distributed according to state law.

If you are making an inventory of your estate, include the types of assets for which an executor might search. Depending on your financial situation, your personal estate inventory might include:

  • A 401(k) plan or similar employer-sponsored retirement plan
  • Traditional or Roth IRAs
  • Business retirement accounts, such as a solo 401(k) or SEP IRA if you are self-employed
  • Taxable brokerage accounts
  • A Health Savings Account (HSA)
  • College savings accounts
  • Life insurance policies
  • Bank accounts
  • Vehicles
  • Real estate and land
  • Personal possessions that are valued at $500 or more; and
  • Family heirlooms, antiques, or collectibles.

The executor’s job can be simplified by making a list of any liabilities or debts that you owe. This can include a mortgage on your home, auto loans, private student loans, credit cards, installment loans, business loans, tax liens, medical bills and personal loans. Once you complete your personal estate inventory you may want to file a copy of it with your estate planning attorney. Review your inventory annually to make certain that it is up to date.

Knowing what is included in an estate inventory can make your job as an executor easier. If you submit an incomplete inventory, it may delay the probate process.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Feb. 15, 2022) “What Is Included in an Estate Inventory?”

 

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How Can I Help My Family After I Pass Away? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

In addition to attempting to arrange a spouse’s funeral, a grieving person must try to locate the deceased’s will, the executor, information on the family’s finances and the various family accounts’ usernames and passwords.

Starts at 60’s recent article entitled “How to take care of your family in life and in death” explains that estate planning is always a difficult subject to deal with, because no one wants to arrange things for when they die.

However, good communication and planning make the life of the surviving spouse and family easier, particularly during the inevitably stressful time of dealing with the death. Let’s look at seven key points of estate planning:

Communication. Sharing information is crucial. Both spouses should be aware of the family’s investments and advisors. The advisers should also know both clients to help make any transition as seamless as possible. Where one spouse has taken responsibility for the financial affairs, he or she should leave specific instructions concerning who to contact in the event of their death and what steps to be taken.

Bank accounts. It is important to know what bank accounts the couple has, and, importantly, what are the accounts’ usernames and passwords. They should also make the executor or adult children aware of the location of the keys to the safety deposit box or the code to the safe at home.

Financial contacts. The couple should divulge important family financial contacts, such as an accountant, estate planning attorney, their insurance broker and financial advisors.

Will. Determine where their wills are kept and if they are up to date. Note the names of the executors. You should also see if the executors are aware they have been named as executors, and if the couple has any power of attorney documents.

Life Insurance. See if the couple has life insurance and note the details of the policy, as well as the agent’s contact information.

Other family assets. Your other valuables should be recorded with the specific ownership of each noted and shared with an estate planning attorney. This includes companies, motor vehicles, boats, vacation homes and art collections.

Reference: Starts at 60 (April 2, 2022) “How to take care of your family in life and in death”

 

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Should You Update Your Estate Plan? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Some reasons to update your will are more obvious than others, like marriage, divorce, remarriage, births and deaths. However, those are not the only reasons your estate plan needs to be reviewed, explains a recent article appropriately titled “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it” from CNBC.

Think of your estate plan like your home. They both need regular updates and maintenance. If your house starts to get rundown or the roof springs a leak, you know you need to get it fixed. Your estate plan is not as visible. However, it is still in need of ongoing maintenance.

Health events should be a trigger, yours or people named in your will. If the person you named as your executor becomes ill or dies, you will need to name a new person to replace them. The same goes for a guardian named to care for any minor children, especially if you named a grandparent for this role.

If you move, your estate plan must ‘move’ with you. Each state has different laws regarding how estates are administered. In one state, an executor living out of state may be okay. However, in another, it may make the executor ineligible to serve. Inheritance tax laws also vary.

Any time there is a large change to your personal wealth, whether it is good or bad, your estate planning attorney should review your will.

The same goes for a change in parental status. The birth of additional children seems like it might not require a review. However, it does. More than a few celebrities failed to update their estate plans and accidentally disinherited children. The same person who may be willing to be a guardian for one child, may find taking on two or three children to be too much of a challenge. If you want to change the guardianship, your estate plan needs to be updated.

A change in your relationship with fiduciaries also merits an update. Someone you named ten years ago to be your executor may no longer be a part of your life, or they may have died. Family members age, retire and move and siblings have changes in their own lives. Reviewing the executor regularly is important.

If a family member becomes disabled, you may need special needs planning.

A commonly overlooked trigger concerns mergers and acquisitions of financial institutions. If your bank is the executor of your estate and the bank is bought or sold, you likely have a new executor. Do you know who the person is, and do you trust their judgment?

Beneficiaries need to be checked every few years to be sure they are still correct. If your life includes a divorce and remarriage, you could be like one man whose life insurance proceeds and property went to his new spouse. His daughter was disinherited because he failed to update his will.

It does not take long to review an estate plan or beneficiaries. However, the impact of not doing so could be long-lasting and cast a negative light on your legacy.

Reference: CNBC (March 1, 2022) “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it”

 

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Does an Elder Orphan Need an Estate Plan? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Estate planning for the future is even more important for elder orphans than for those with a spouse or family members, according to this recent article “Savvy Senior: How to get help as an elder orphan” from The Virginia Gazette. There is no one single solution, but there are steps to take to protect your estate, health and provide for long-term care.

Start with the essential estate planning documents. These documents will protect you and ensure that your wishes are followed, if you become seriously ill or when you die. These documents include:

A durable Power of Attorney to designate someone to handle financial matters in the event of incapacity.

An Advanced Health Care Directive, including a Living Will, to tell your health care provider what kind of care you want if you become incapacitated.

A Health Care Power of Attorney, naming a person of your choice to make medical decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so.

A Will to direct how you want your property and assets to be distributed upon your death and to name an Executor who will be in charge of your estate.

Your best option to prepare these documents is an experienced estate planning attorney. Trying to do it yourself is risky. Each state has its own laws for these documents to be valid. If the documents are not accepted, the court could declare your will invalid and your directions will not be followed.

People with families typically name a responsible adult child as their power of attorney for finances, as executor or for health care decisions. If you do not have adult children, you may ask a trusted friend or colleague. Name a person who is younger than you, organized and responsible and who will likely be available and willing to service.

If the person you name as executor lives in another state, you will need to check with your estate planning attorney to see if there are any special requirements.

If you do not have a friend or even a distant relative you feel comfortable assigning this role to, your estate planning attorney may be able to suggest alternatives, such as an aging life care manager. These professionals are trained in geriatric care and often have backgrounds in social work or nursing.

If you are reluctant to complete the legal documents mentioned above or start having them prepared and then fail to complete them, you may face some unpleasant consequences. A judge may appoint a guardian to make decisions on your behalf. This guardian is likely to be a complete stranger to you. They will be legally empowered to make all decisions for you regarding your health care, end-of-life care and even your burial and funeral services.

Unless you are comfortable with a court-appointed person making health care and other decisions for you, call an estate planning attorney and start making plans for the future.

Reference: The Virginia Gazette (April 1, 2022) “Savvy Senior: How to get help as an elder orphan”

 

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How to Handle Digital Assets in a Will – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Now that cryptocurrency has become almost commonplace, it is necessary to incorporate it into estate plans and their administration, according to the article “Estate planners want to keep the crypt out of cryptocurrency” from Roll Call.

One advantage of using cryptocurrencies in estate planning is the ease of transference—if all parties know how crypto works. Unlike a traditional bank, which typically requires executors to produce an original death certificate and other documents to take control of accounts in the estate, cryptocurrency only requires the fiduciary to have passcodes to gain access to accounts.

The passcode is a complex, multicharacter code appearing to be a long string of unrelated numbers and letters. It is stored in a digital wallet, which can only be accessed through the use of the 64-digit passcode, also known as a key.

While the passcode is simple, it is also very vulnerable. If the key is lost, there is no way to retrieve it. The executor must know not just where the key is physically located if it has been written down on paper, or if it is kept in a digital wallet, but how to access the digital wallet. There are also different kinds of digital wallets.

People do not usually share their passwords with others. However, in the case of crypto, consider storing it in a safe but accessible location and telling a trusted person where it may be found.

People who own cryptocurrency need to give someone access info. If someone is named an executor at one point in your life and they have the information about digital assets, then at some point you change the executor, there is no way to guarantee the former executor might not access the account.

How do you protect digital assets? Using “cold storage,” an account passcode is stored and concealed on a USB drive or similar device, allowing the information to be shared without the user needing to learn the passcode to access the account. The cold storage USB drive can be given from one fiduciary to the successor fiduciary without either knowing the passcode.

Many bills have been introduced in Congress addressing cryptocurrency and blockchain policies. The IRS has issued a number of notices and publications regarding taxes on digital currency transactions. Crypto is no longer an “invisible” asset.

In addition to policies and regulations, litigation concerning estates and cryptocurrency is still relatively new to the judiciary. Planning for these assets to ensure they are passed to the next generation securely is very important as their use and value continues to grow.

Reference: Roll Call (Feb. 22, 2022) “Estate planners want to keep the crypt out of cryptocurrency”

 

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When Can Estate Assets Be Distributed? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Just as an individual pays taxes, so do estates. An estate is required to file an annual income tax return for each calendar year it is open, even if only for part of the year. This is in addition to the estate tax return and the decedent’s final tax return, explains a recent article “The Dangers Of Distributing Estate Assets Too Soon” from Forbes.

The estate tax return is based on the assets in the estate, the income received and deductible expenses paid during the calendar year. Only one estate tax return is required. However, as long as the estate is open, an annual estate income tax return needs to be filed.

To minimize income, many executors distribute income to beneficiaries shortly after it comes into the estate. The estate takes a deduction for the income distributed to beneficiaries in the same year it is received by the estate. Beneficiaries are required to include the distribution in their gross income.

However, if the estate does not distribute income before the end of the year, the estate will owe income taxes. There are further complexities to be aware of, including what happens if an executor receives unexpected income or does not know the tax impact of certain transactions. The estate has to pay taxes, but what happens if all assets have been distributed?

The estate still owes those taxes.

The executor may be personally liable for paying the taxes.

If some of the expenses the estate pays are not deductible, but the executor thinks they are, then the estate will have an income tax liability, possibly without the cash to pay it.

The estate often receives property taxable as income if it is not distributed to beneficiaries, like a stock dividend. The estate receives the stock, and its taxable income based on the value at the date of the distribution.

If the estate does not distribute the stock to beneficiaries until later in the year and the stock’s value declines, the estate is still required to recognize the income equal to the stock’s value on the date it was received. If the executor deducts the lower value of the stock, then the estate will be liable for the income tax on the difference.

In some cases, these kinds of issues can be prevented by maintaining a certain level of cash in the estate account until the final estate tax return is filed. The beneficiaries receive distributions once all of the taxes—estate income, estate and final individual or final joint—are paid.

For larger or more complex estates, it is wise to have a tax discussion with the estate planning attorney, the family CPA and the executor, so all parties are prepared for tax liabilities in advance.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 16, 2022) “The Dangers Of Distributing Estate Assets Too Soon”

 

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Does the Executor Control Bank Accounts? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Executors administering probate assets usually have to deal with several different financial institutions. If good planning has been done by the decedent, the executor has a list of assets, account numbers, website addresses and phone numbers. Otherwise, the personal representative or successor trustee starts by gathering information and identifying the accounts, as described in a recent article “Dealing with the back offices of banks and brokerages” from Lake Country News.

The accounts must be identified, retitled to become part of the estate, or liquidated and moved into the estate account.

If the decedent had a financial advisor who handled all of their investments, the process may be easier, since there will only be one person to deal with.

If there is no financial advisor who can or will personally manage the assets, the executor starts by contacting the back office department of the institution, often referred to as the “estates department.” The contact info can usually be found on the institutions’ website or on the paper statements, if there are any.

Expect to spend a lot of time on hold, especially in the beginning of the week. It may be better to call on a Wednesday or Thursday.

The first call is to introduce the executor, advise of the death of the decedent and learn about the company’s procedures for transferring, retitling, or otherwise gaining control of the account. The bank usually assigns a case number, to be used on all future communications.

If possible, obtain their name, direct dial, and direct email of whoever you speak with. It may only be with one assigned representative, or a different person every time. It depends upon the organization. Take careful notes on every interaction. You may need them.

Some of the documents needed to complete these transactions include an original death certificate, a court certified letter of administration or trustee’s certification of trust and a letter of authorization signed by the client to allow the institution to communicate with the executor or successor trustee.

Financial institutions will often only accept their own forms, which then need to be prepared for completion and signature. Expect to be asked to notarize some documents. In many cases, the institution will require a new account be opened and the assets transferred to the new account.

Be organized—you may find yourself needing to submit the documents multiple times, depending on the financial institution. If hard copy documents are sent, use registered or express mail requiring a signature on delivery. If documents are sent by email, they should only be sent via an encrypted portal to protect both estate and executor.

This is not a quick process and requires diligent follow up, with multiple emails and phone calls. If the value of the estate is large and the assets are complex, it may be better to have the estate planning attorney handle the process.

Reference: Lake Country News (Jan. 15, 2022) “Dealing with the back offices of banks and brokerages”

 

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What Legal Terms in Estate Planning do Non-Lawyers Need to Know? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Having a working knowledge of the terms used in estate planning is the first step in working successfully with an estate planning attorney, says a recent article, “Learn lingo of estate planning to help ensure best outcome” from The News-Enterprise. Two of those key words:

Principal—the individual on whose behalf documents are prepared.

Fiduciary—the person who signs some of these documents and who is responsible for making decisions in the best interest of the principal and the estate.

In estate planning and in business, the fiduciary is the person or business who must act responsibly and in good faith towards the person and their property. You will see this term in almost every estate planning or financial document.

Within a last will and testament, there are more: beneficiary, conservator, executor, grantor, guardian, testator, and trustee are some of the more commonly used terms for the roles people take.

The testator is the principal, the person who signs the will and on whose behalf the will was drafted.

Beneficiaries are individuals who receive property from the estate after death. Contingent beneficiaries are “back-up” beneficiaries, in case the beneficiaries are unable to receive the inheritance. In most wills, the beneficiaries are listed “or to descendants, per stirpes.” This means if the beneficiary dies before the testator, the beneficiary’s children receive the original beneficiary’s share.

In most cases, specific distributions are made first, where a specific asset or amount of money goes to a specific person. This includes charitable donations. After all specific distributions are made, the rest of the estate, referred to as the “residuary estate,” is distributed. This includes everything else in the probate estate.

The administrator or executor is the fiduciary charged with gathering assets, paying bills and making the distribution to beneficiaries. The executor is the term used when there is a will. If there is no will, the person in the role is referred to as the administrator and may be appointed by the court.

If a beneficiary is unable to take the inheritance because they are a minor or incapacitated, the court will appoint a conservator to act as fiduciary on behalf of the beneficiary.

A guardian is the person who takes care of the beneficiary, or minor children, and is named in the will. If there is no guardian named in the will, or if there is no will, a court will appoint a person to be the guardian. Judges do not always select family members to serve as guardians, so there should always be a secondary guardian, in case the first cannot serve. If the first guardian does not wish to serve or is unable to, naming a secondary guardian is better than a child being sent to foster care.

Finally, the trustee is the person in charge of a trust. The person who creates the trust is the grantor or settlor. It is important to note the executor has no control or input over the trust. Only the trustee or successor trustee may make distributions and they are the trust’s fiduciary.

Getting comfortable with the terms of estate planning will make the process easier and help you understand the different roles and responsibilities involved.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Jan. 18, 2022) “Learn lingo of estate planning to help ensure best outcome”

 

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Storing Passwords in Case of Death – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Despite having the resources to hire IT forensic experts to help access accounts, including her husband’s IRA, it has been three years and Deborah Placet still has not been able to gain access to her husband’s Bitcoin account. Placet and her late husband were financial planners and should have known better. However, they did not have a digital estate plan. Her situation, according to the Barron’s article “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare” offers cautionary tale.

Our digital footprint keeps expanding. As a result, there is no paper trail to follow when a loved one dies. In the past, an executor or estate administrator could simply have mail forwarded and figure out accounts, assets and values. Not only do we not have a paper trail, but digital accounts are protected by passwords, multifactor authentication processes, fingerprints, facial recognition systems and federal data privacy laws.

The starting point is to create a list of digital accounts. Instructions on how to gain access to the accounts must be very specific, because a password alone may not be enough information. Explain what you want to happen to the account: should ownership be transferred to someone else, who has permission to retrieve and save the data and whether you want the account to be shut down and no data saved, etc.

The account list should include:

  • Social media platforms
  • Traditional bank, retirement and investment accounts
  • PayPal, Venmo and similar payment accounts
  • Cryptocurrency wallets, nonfungible token (NFT) assets
  • Home and utilities accounts, like mortgage, electric, gas, cable, internet
  • Insurance, including home, auto, flood, health, life, disability, long-term care.
  • Smart phone accounts
  • Online storage accounts
  • Photo, music and video accounts
  • Subscription services
  • Loyalty/rewards programs
  • Gaming accounts

Some accounts may be accessed by using a username and password. However, others are more secure and require biometric protection. This information should all be included in a document, but the document should not be included in the Last Will and Testament, since the Last Will and Testament becomes public information through probate and is accessible to anyone who wants to see it.

Certain platforms have created a process to allow heirs to access assets. Typically, death certificates, a Last Will and Testament or probate documents, a valid photo ID of the deceased and a letter signed by those named in the probate records outlining what is to be done with assets are required. However, not every platform has addressed this issue.

Compiling a list of digital assets is about as much fun as preparing for tax season. However, without a plan, digital assets are likely to be lost. Identity theft and fraud occurs when assets are unprotected and unused.

Just as a traditional estate plan protects heirs to avoid further stress and expense, a digital estate plan helps to protect the family and loved ones. Speak with your estate planning attorney as you are working on your estate plan to create a digital estate plan.

Reference: Barron’s (Dec. 15, 2021) “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare”

 

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How Do I Prepare a Digital Estate Plan? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Today there is a new kind of asset class requiring attention when creating or reviewing your estate plan: digital assets. A recent article, titled “Everything you need to know about digital estate planning” from the Daily Herald, describes what needs to happen to protect your digital life.

Let’s start by defining a digital asset. These include social media, email accounts, online subscription services, personal images (photos and videos) stored online, blogs, online businesses, cryptocurrency, websites, web domains, gaming accounts and gambling websites, to name a few.

Signing up for any of these accounts involves a lengthy terms of service agreement (TOSA), which we all scroll past without reading and click “Agree.” What we do not realize is our agreement is a legally-binding contract with the platform or service provider agreeing to whatever terms they have created. Many of these TOSAs include provisions stating when the original owner passes, the company may terminate their account, regardless of the value of the digital property or the wishes of the owner.

Most states have adopted legislation of some kind to address digital assets after the person has passed. Generally speaking, they grant the traditional executor or representative access to digital information. However, here is the problem: the tech companies stand by their contracts. Protection of the original owner’s privacy is often cited as the reason contents cannot be shared with another person. Even if the executor knows the username and password, they may find the account and its content deleted. The executor may only find a small portion of the online information or be accused of committing fraud for logging on using the decedent’s username and password.

Big tech companies take the position, the data and accounts owned by one person. As a result, they have a responsibility to protect the person’s privacy. Therefore, they are not legally permitted to share data or content. The headlines of heirs trying to get family photos or police departments attempting to get evidence represent a tiny portion of the many people trying to access their loved one’s digital property. There are also millions lost in cryptocurrency from actual owners who forget their keys, or owners who never shared information with their heirs about accessing crypto wallets.

What can you do to protect your digital assets?

Appoint a digital executor in your will and provide them with the necessary materials to access your digital assets.

Create a digital asset inventory. There are online programs for this purpose, or you can use paper and pen. If you create a spreadsheet on a computer, you should encrypt it. Otherwise, you can expect it to be hacked and stolen. The only question is when, not if!

Keep the inventory up to date every time you change a password or username.

Decide what you want to happen to each digital asset after your death. Do you want your Facebook account changed to a “memorialized” account for a period of time? Or would you prefer it to be shut down, immediately?

Certain digital platforms have a process for assigning an executor—not many, but some. Find out what the policies are for all of your accounts.

Do not share any digital asset information in your last will. The last will and testament becomes a public document when it is filed in the court. Anyone can gain access to it. Protect it the same way you would protect any major traditional asset.

Talk with your estate planning attorney about your state’s digital assets laws. This is still a relatively new asset class, but one that deserves the same level of protection as other assets.

Reference: Daily Herald (Nov. 10, 2021) “Everything you need to know about digital estate planning”

 

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