Can Unequal Inheritances Be Fair? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Estate planning attorneys aren’t often asked to create estate plans treating heirs unfairly. However, when they do it usually is because a parent is estranged from one child and wishes to leave him or her nothing. When it comes to estate planning, equal isn’t the same as fair, explains the article “Are Unequal Inheritances Fair?” from Advisor Perspectives.

An example of this can be seen in the case of a widow with four adult children who asked an estate planning attorney how to approach distributing her assets. Three of her children were high-income earners, already building substantial net worth. A fourth child had mental health issues, limited education, had been in and out of jail and was unable to hold a job.

She understood that her fourth child needed the financial stability the others did not. She wanted to provide some support for him, but knew any money left directly to him would be gone quickly. She was considering leaving money for him in a trust to provide a monthly income stream, but also wanted to be fair to the other three children.

The trust would be the best option. However, there were problems to consider. If the estate were to be divided in four equal parts, the fourth child’s share of the estate would be small, so trustee fees would take a significant amount of the trust. If she left her entire estate for him, it would be more likely he’d have funding for most, if not all, of his adult life.

The worst thing the mother could do was to leave all the funds for the fourth child in a trust without discussing it with the other three siblings. Unequal inheritances can lead to battles between siblings, sometimes bad enough to lead them into a court battle. This is often the case where one child is believed by others to have unduly influenced a parent, when they have inherited all or the lion’s share of the estate.

Sibling fights can occur even when the children know about and understand the need for the unequal distribution. The children may suppress their emotions while the parent is living. However, after the parent dies and the reality sets in, emotions may fire at full throttle. Logically, in this case the three successful siblings may well understand why their troubled sibling needs the funds. However, grief is a powerful emotion and can lead to illogical responses.

In this case, the woman made the decision to leave her estate in equal shares to each child and giving the three successful siblings the options to share part of their inheritance with their brother. She did this by having her estate planning attorney add language in the will stating if any child wanted to disclaim or refuse any of their inheritance, it would pass to a trust set up for the troubled sibling. This gave each child the opportunity to help or not.

Was it a perfect solution? Perhaps not, but it was the best possible solution given the specific circumstances for this family.

Contact us to speak with one of our experienced estate planning attorneys about creating the best possible solution for you and your family.

Reference: Advisor Perspectives (Aug. 22, 2022) “Are Unequal Inheritances Fair?”

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What Sparks the Contesting of a Will? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A last will and testament is the document used to direct your executor to distribute assets and property according to your wishes. However, it is not uncommon for disgruntled or distant family members or others to dispute the validity of the will. A recent article titled “5 Reasons A Law Will May Be Contested” from Vents Magazine explains the top five factors to keep in mind when preparing your will.

Undue influence is a commonly invoked reason for a challenge. If a potential beneficiary can prove the person making the will (the testator) was influenced by another person to make decisions they would not have otherwise made, a will challenge could be brought to court. Undue influence means the testator’s decision was significantly affected by a person who stood to gain something by the outcome of the will and made a concerted effort to change the testator’s mind.

Even if there was no evidence of fraud, any suspicion of the testator’s being influenced is enough for a court to accept a case. If you think someone unduly influenced a loved one, especially if they suffer from any mental frailties or dementia, you may have cause to bring a case.

Outright fraud or forgery is another reason for the will to be contested. If there have been many erasures or signature styles appear different from one document to another, there may have been fraud. An estate planning attorney should examine documents to evaluate whether there is enough cause for suspicion to challenge the will.

Improper witnesses. The testator is required to sign the will with witnesses present. In some states, only one witness is required. In most states, two witnesses must be present to sign the will in front of the testator. A beneficiary may not be a witness to the signing of the will. Some states have changed laws to allow for remote signings in response to COVID. If the rules have not been followed, the will may be invalid.

Mistaken identity seems farfetched. However, it is a common occurrence, especially when someone has a common name or more than one person in the family has the same name, and the document has not been properly signed or witnessed. This could create confusion and make the document vulnerable to a challenge. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to prepare documents to withstand any challenges.

Capacity in the law means someone is able to understand the concept of a will and contents of the document they are signing, along with the identities of the people to whom they are leaving their assets. The person does not need to have perfect mental health, so people with mild cognitive impairments, such as depression or anxiety, may make and sign a will. A medical opinion may be needed, if there might be any doubt as to whether a person had testamentary capacity when the will is signed.

A will contest can be time-consuming and expensive, so keep these issues in mind, especially if the family includes some litigious individuals.

Reference: Vents Magazine (May 6, 2022) “5 Reasons A Law Will May Be Contested”

 

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Should I Have a Roth IRA? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Roth IRAs are powerful retirement savings tools. Account owners are allowed to take tax-free distributions in retirement and can avoid paying taxes on investment growth. There is little downside to a Roth IRA, according to a recent article “10 Reasons to Save for Retirement in a Roth IRA” from U.S. News & World Report.

Taxes are paid in advance on a Roth IRA. Therefore, if you are in a low tax bracket now and may be in a higher bracket later, or if tax rates increase, you have already paid those taxes. Another plus: all your Roth IRA funds are available to you in retirement, unlike a traditional IRA when you have to pay income tax on every withdrawal.

Roth IRA distributions taken after age 59 ½ from accounts at least five years old are tax free. Every withdrawal taken from a traditional IRA is treated like income and, like income, is subject to taxes.

When comparing the two, compare your current tax rate to what you expect your tax rate to be once you have retired. You can also save in both types of accounts in the same year, if you are not sure about future tax rates.

Roth IRA accounts also let you keep investment gains, because you don’t pay income tax on investment gains or earned interest.

Roth IRAs have greater flexibility. Traditional IRA account owners are required to take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from an IRA every year after age 72. If you forget to take a distribution, there is a 50% tax penalty. You also have to pay taxes on the withdrawal. Roth IRAs have no withdrawal requirements during the lifetime of the original owner. Take what you need, when you need, if you need.

Roth IRAs are also more flexible before retirement. If you are under age 59 ½ and take an early withdrawal, it will cost you a 10% early withdrawal penalty plus income tax. Roth early withdrawals also trigger a 10% penalty and income tax, but only on the portion of the withdrawal from investment earnings.

If your goal is to leave IRA money for heirs, Roth IRAs also have advantages. A traditional IRA account requires beneficiaries to pay taxes on any money left to them in a traditional 401(k) or IRA. However, those who inherit a Roth IRA can take tax-free withdrawals. Heirs have to take withdrawals. However, the distributions are less likely to create expensive tax situations.

Retirement savers can contribute up to $6,000 in a Roth IRA in 2022. Age 50 and up? You can make an additional $1,000 catch up contribution for a total Roth IRA contribution of $7,000.

If this sounds attractive but you have been using a traditional IRA, a Roth conversion is your next step. However, you will have to pay the income taxes on the amount converted. Try to make the conversion in a year when you are in a lower tax bracket. You could also convert a small amount every year to maintain control over taxes.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (April 11, 2022) “10 Reasons to Save for Retirement in a Roth IRA”

 

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Can You Inherit a House with a Mortgage? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Inheriting a home with a mortgage adds another layer of complexity to settling the estate, as explained in a recent article from Investopedia titled “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage.” The lender needs to be notified right away of the owner’s passing and the estate must continue to make regular payments on the existing mortgage. Depending on how the estate was set up, it may be a struggle to make monthly payments, especially if the estate must first go through probate.

Probate is the process where the court reviews the will to ensure that it is valid and establish the executor as the person empowered to manage the estate. The executor will need to provide the mortgage holder with a copy of the death certificate and a document affirming their role as executor to be able to speak with the lending company on behalf of the estate.

If multiple people have inherited a portion of the house, some tough decisions will need to be made. The simplest solution is often to sell the home, pay off the mortgage and split the proceeds evenly.

If some of the heirs wish to keep the home as a residence or a rental property, those who wish to keep the home need to buy out the interest of those who do not want the house. When the house has a mortgage, the math can get complicated. An estate planning attorney will be able to map out a way forward to keep the sale of the shares from getting tangled up in the emotions of grieving family members.

If one heir has invested time and resources into the property and others have not, it gets even more complex. Family members may take the position that the person who invested so much in the property was also living there rent free, and things can get ugly. The involvement of an estate planning attorney can keep the transfer focused as a business transaction.

What if the house has a reverse mortgage? In this case, the reverse mortgage company needs to be notified. You will need to find out the existing balance due on the reverse mortgage. If the estate does not have the funds to pay the balance, there is the option of refinancing the property to pay off the balance due, if they wish is to keep the house. If there is not enough equity or the heirs cannot refinance, they typically sell the house to pay off the reverse mortgage.

Can heirs take over the existing loan? Your estate planning attorney will be able to advise the family of their rights, which are different than rights of homeowners. Lenders in some circumstances may allow heirs to be added to the existing mortgage without going through a full loan application and verifying credit history, income, etc. However, if you chose to refinance or take out a home equity loan, you will have to go through the usual process.

Inheriting a house with a mortgage or a reverse mortgage can be a stressful process during an already difficult time. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to guide the family through their options and help with the rest of the estate.

Reference: Investopedia (April 12, 2022) “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage”

 

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Is a Bypass Trust Necessary? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A bypass trust removes a designated portion of an IRA or 401(k) proceeds from the surviving spouse’s taxable estate, while also achieving several tax benefits, according to a recent article titled “New Purposes for ‘Bypass’ Trusts in Estate Planning” from Financial Advisor.

Portability became law in 2013, when Congress permanently passed the portability election for assets passing outright to the surviving spouse when the first spouse dies. This allows the survivor to benefit from the unused federal estate tax exemption of the deceased spouse, thereby claiming two estate tax exemptions. Why would a couple need a bypass trust in their estate plan?

  • The portability election does not remove appreciation in the value of the ported assets from the surviving spouse’s taxable estate. A bypass trust removes all appreciation.
  • The portability election does not apply if the surviving spouse remarries, and the new spouse predeceases the surviving spouse. Remarriage does not impact a bypass trust.
  • The portability election does not apply to federal generation skipping transfer taxes. The amount could be subject to a federal transfer tax in the heir’s estates, including any appreciation in value.
  • If the decedent had debts or liability issues, ported assets do not have the protection against claims and lawsuits offered by a bypass trust.
  • The first spouse to die loses the ability to determine where the ported assets go after the death of the surviving spouse. This is particularly important when there are children from multiple marriages and parents want to ensure their children receive an inheritance.

This strategy should be reviewed in light of the SECURE Act 10-year maximum payout rule, since the outright payment of IRA and 401(k) plan proceeds to a surviving spouse is entitled to spousal rollover treatment and generally a greater income tax deferral.

Bypass trusts are also subject to the highest federal income tax rate at levels of gross income of as low as $13,550, and they do not qualify for income tax basis step-up at the death of the surviving spouse.

However, the use of IRC Section 678 in creating the bypass trust can eliminate the high trust income tax rates and the minimum exemption, also under Section 678, so the trust is not taxed the way a surviving spouse would be. There is also the potential to include a conditional general testamentary power of appointment in the trust, which can sometimes result in income tax basis step-up for all or a portion of the appreciated assets in the trust upon the death of the surviving spouse.

Every estate planning situation is unique, and these decisions should only be made after consideration of the size of the IRA or 401(k) plan, the tax situation of the surviving spouse and the tax situation of the heirs. An experienced estate planning attorney is needed to review each situation to determine whether or not a bypass trust is the best option for the couple and the family.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Feb. 1, 2022) “New Purposes for ‘Bypass’ Trusts in Estate Planning”

 

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What Assets Should Be Considered when Planning Estate? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The numbers of Americans who have a formal estate plan is still less than 50%. This number has not changed much over the decade. However, the assets owned have become a lot more complicated, according to a recent article from CNBC titled “What happens to your digital assets and cryptocurrency when you die? Even with a will, they may be overlooked.”

Airline miles and credit card points, social media accounts and cryptocurrencies are different types of assets to be passed on to heirs. For those who do have an estate plan, the focus is probably on traditional assets, like their home, 401(k)s, IRAs and bank accounts. However, we own so much more today.

Start with an inventory. For digital assets, include photos, videos, hardware, software, devices, and websites, to name a few. Make sure someone you trust has the unlock code for your phone, laptop and desktop. Use a secure password manager or a notebook, whatever you are more comfortable with, and share the information with a trusted person.

You will also need to include what you want to happen to the digital asset. Some platforms will let owners name a legacy contact to handle the account when they die and what the owner wants to happen to the data, photos, videos, etc. Some platforms have not yet addressed this issue at all.

If an online business generates income, what do you want to happen to the business? If you want the business to continue, who will own the business, who will run the business and receive the income? All of this has to be made clear and documented properly.

Failing to create a digital asset plan puts those assets at risk. For cryptocurrency and nonfungible tokens (NFTs), this has become a routine problem. Unlike traditional financial accounts, there are no paper statements, and your executor cannot simply contact the institution with a death certificate and a Power of Attorney and move funds.

Another often overlooked part of an estate are pets. Assets cannot be left directly to pets. However, most states allow pet trusts, where owners can fund a trust and designate a trustee and a caretaker. Make sure to fund the account once it has been created, so your beloved companion will be cared for as you want. An informal agreement is not enforceable, and your pet may end up in a shelter or abandoned.

Sentimental possessions also need to be planned for. Your great-grandmother’s soup tureen may be available for $20 on eBay, but it is not the same as the one she actually used and taught her daughter and her granddaughter how to use. The same goes for more valuable items, like jewelry or artwork. Identifying who gets what while you are living, can help prevent family quarrels when you are gone. In some families, there will be quarrels unless the items are in the will. Another option: distribute these items while you are living.

If you can, it is also a good idea and a gift to your loved ones to write down what you want in the way of a funeral or memorial service. Do they want to be buried, or cremated? Do they want a religious service in a house of worship, or a simple graveside service?

If you are among those who have a will, you probably need it to be reviewed. If you do not have a will or a comprehensive estate plan, you should meet with an experienced estate planning attorney to address distribution of assets, planning for incapacity and preparing for the often overlooked aspects of your life. You will have the comfort of expressing your wishes and your loved ones will be grateful.

Reference: CNBC (Jan. 18, 2022) “What happens to your digital assets and cryptocurrency when you die? Even with a will, they may be overlooked”

 

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

Updating an estate plan is not usually the first thing on one’s mind when large life events occur. However, if you fail to update your estate plan, over time the plan may not work—for you or your loved ones. Reviewing estate plans at least once every three or four years will help to reach your goals and protect your family, explains the article “Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?” from Arkansas Business.

Two key documents are used to distribute your assets: your last will and testament and trusts. As your children and other family members mature, those documents should change as may be needed.

If you have a revocable trust, you need to review the dispositive provisions and the trust funding. One of the biggest mistakes in estate planning, after failing to have an estate plan, is failing to fund or manage the funds in a trust.

Trusts are created to avoid probate and establish a process for distributing assets in case of disability or death. However, if assets are not retitled to be owned by the trust, or if the assets do not have an appropriate beneficiary designation to transfer assets to the trust at the time of your death, they will not perform as intended. As new assets are purchased, they also need to be incorporated into your estate plan.

Relationships you have with people who have responsibilities for your estate plan may change over time. Those need to be updated, including the following:

Trustee—The person or institution administering and managing a revocable trust, when you can no longer do so.

Guardian—The individual who will have legal authority and responsibility to raise your minor child(ren).

Executor—The person who is in charge of administering and managing your estate.

Health Care Agent—The person you authorize to make medical decisions in the event of incapacity.

Another common point of failure for estate plans: neglecting to update beneficiary designations for assets like life insurance, retirement plans and any asset that customarily passes to an heir through a beneficiary designation.

A regular review of your estate plan with your estate planning attorney also allows your plan to incorporate changes in tax laws. The last few years have seen many significant changes in tax laws, and more changes are likely in the future. Strategies that may have been extremely effective five or ten years ago are probably outdated and might create costs for your heirs. A review with an experienced estate planning attorney can prevent unnecessary tax liabilities, unexpected inheritances and family feuds.

Reference: Arkansas Business (Sep. 2021) “Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?”

 

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What Is a Dynasty Trust? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Do not be put off by the term “dynasty.” Just as every person has an estate, even if they do not live in a million-dollar home, every person who owns assets could potentially have a dynasty trust, even if they do not rule a continent. If you have assets that you wish to pass to others, you need an estate plan and you may also benefit from a dynasty trust, says this recent article from Kiplinger, “A Smart Option for Transferring Wealth Through Generations: The Dynasty Trust.”

When parents die, assets are typically transferred to their descendants. In most cases, the assets are transferred directly to the heirs, unless a trust has been created. Estate taxes must be paid, usually from the assets in the estate. Inheritances are divided according to the will, after the taxes have been paid, and go directly to the beneficiary, who does what they want with the assets.

If you leave assets outright to heirs, when the beneficiary dies, the assets are subject to estate taxes again. If assets are left to grandchildren, they are likely to incur another type of taxes, called Generation Skipping Transfer Taxes (GSTT). If you want your children to have an inheritance, you will need to do estate planning to minimize estate tax liability.

If you own a Family Limited Partnership (FLP) or a Limited Liability Company (LLC), own real estate or have a large equity portfolio, you may have the ability to use gifting and wealth transfer plans to provide for your family in the future. You may be able to do this without losing control of the assets.

The “dynasty trust,” named because it was once used by families like the DuPont’s and Fords, is created to transfer wealth from generation to generation without being subject to various gift, estate and/or GSTT taxes for as long as the assets remain in the trust, depending upon applicable state laws. A dynasty trust can also be used to protect assets from creditors, divorcing spouses and others seeking to make a claim against the assets.

Many people use an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust (ILIT) and transfer the assets free of the trust upon death. Most living trusts are transferred without benefit of being held within trusts.

A dynasty trust is usually created by the parents and can include any kind of asset—life insurance, securities, limited partnership interests, etc.—other than qualified retirement plans. The assets are held within the trust and when the grantor dies, the trust automatically subdivides into as many new trusts as the number of beneficiaries named in the trust. It is also known as a “bloodline” trust.

Let us say you have three children. The trust divides into three new trusts, dividing assets among the three. When those children die, the trust subdivides again for their children (grandchildren) in their own respective trusts and again, assets are divided into equal shares.

The trust offers broad powers for health, welfare, maintenance and support. The children can use the money as they wish, investing or taking it out. When created properly, the assets and growth are both protected from estate taxes. You will need a trustee, a co-trustee and an experienced estate planning attorney to draft and execute this plan.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 2, 2021) “A Smart Option for Transferring Wealth Through Generations: The Dynasty Trust”

 

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Estate Planning and Cryptocurrency – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The increase of people investing in digital assets has not been matched by an increase in the number of people preparing to pass on these assets, which can be of considerable value. This new class of assets requires a new kind of estate planning, according to the article “Cryptocurrency and Estate Planning: What Digital Investors Should Know” from Forbes.

Cryptocurrency is digital currency used to buy online goods and services and traded in several markets. Cryptocurrency is not issued by any government. Instead, it is created and managed through blockchain, a technology comprised of decentralized computers used to record and manage transactions. Users claim cryptocurrency is extremely secure. Sometimes, cryptocurrency is so secure that a lost password can cause the owner to lose millions.

The most popular cryptocurrencies are Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin and Binance Coin, although there are many others, and it seems like a new cryptocurrency is always being introduced. The total value is estimated at $1.35 trillion.

Another digital asset class gaining in popularity is the NFT, or non-fungible token, used to buy and sell digital art. Each NFT, which is also supported by blockchain technology, can be anything digital, like music or artwork files. The buyer of an NFT owns the exclusive original and the artist, in some cases, retains proprietary rights to feature the artwork or make copies of it. Numerous NFTs have already sold for millions.

Owning digital assets without a plan for passing them along to the next generation, could leave heirs empty handed.

Even if your family knows you own cryptocurrency, and even if they know your passwords or have access to the digital wallet where you keep your passwords, they still may not be able to access your accounts. Probate for digital assets is still very new to the courts, and if you can avoid probate for this asset class, you should.

Blockchain technology, the system behind cryptocurrency and NFTs, requires a private key to access each account, typically in the form of a long passcode. Just as you would not put account numbers into a will, you should never put passcodes or usernames in a last will and testament to prevent them from becoming part of the public record. However, only by understanding how each currency works after the original owner dies and preparing to provide the information to your executor, can your heirs receive these assets.

The nature of cryptocurrency is decentralization. There is no governing body that oversees or regulates cryptocurrency. Laws around cryptocurrency are still evolving, so your estate plan may benefit from a trust to protect digital assets.

Do not neglect to have the necessary discussion with your heirs, including a knowledge transfer of the step-by-step process they will need to know to access your digital assets. An estate planning attorney with experience with digital assets and your state’s laws about digital assets will help protect these assets and ensure they are passed to the next generation without evaporating into cyberspace.

Reference: Forbes (July 21, 2021) “Cryptocurrency and Estate Planning: What Digital Investors Should Know”

 

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys