If you have preferences about what happens to your digital footprint after your death, you need to take action. Otherwise, your online legacy will be determined for you—and not by you. If you have any online accounts, such as Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Apple, or Amazon, you have a digital legacy, and that legacy is yours to preserve or lose. 

Following your death, unless you’ve planned ahead, some of your online accounts will survive indefinitely, while others automatically expire after a period of inactivity, and still, others have specific processes that let you give family and friends the ability to access and posthumously manage your accounts.

Because social media and other digital platforms are such a ubiquitous part of our daily routine, and they can offer intimate snapshots of your life, these digital assets can serve as a key part of your legacy—one you may want to protect after your death. Alternatively, you may prefer to keep your online history private and have it permanently deleted once you’re gone. 

Whether you want to preserve your digital footprint or erase it entirely, you need to plan ahead to ensure your wishes are properly carried out. With this in mind, here we’ll discuss how some of the most popular digital platforms handle your account once you log off for the final time. From there, we’ll cover how to include these digital assets in your estate plan to ensure they are properly accounted for, managed, and passed on in the event of your incapacity or death.

FACEBOOK

Unless you choose to have your account deleted, Facebook offers what’s known as a “Legacy Contact” for managing your profile after death. Using a Legacy Contact, you can choose someone to control your account’s operation and functionality after you pass away. https://www.facebook.com/help/991335594313139 ]

Following your death, Facebook first memorializes your account. Once memorialized, the word “Remembering” is added to your profile name, and only confirmed friends can view your profile or find it in a search. Depending on your privacy settings, friends and family members can post content and share memories on your memorialized timeline. 

However, memorialized accounts are locked, so your original content cannot be altered or deleted, even if someone has your password. Your Facebook account can be memorialized regardless of whether or not you select a legacy contact. To have your account memorialized, Facebook simply requires your family or friends to provide proof of your death using a special request form and evidence of death, such as an obituary.

If you’ve chosen a Legacy Contact, that individual can manage your memorialized account based on the permissions you’ve granted him or her. Some of the actions your legacy contact can perform include writing pinned posts, choosing who can view and post tributes on your profile, responding to new friend requests, updating your cover and profile images, and requesting your account’s closure. 

However, there are certain actions your Legacy Contact will not be able to perform. This includes logging into your account as you, viewing your direct messages, removing your friends, or making new friend requests. For more in-depth coverage of Facebook’s legacy contact service and how it fits in with your estate planning, read our previous article, Managing Your Digital Afterlife: A Guide To Facebook’s Legacy Contact.

GMAIL, GOOGLE, & YOUTUBE

The Internet titan Google owns several of the most popular web services, including Gmail, YouTube, Google Drive, Google Photos, and Google Play. In order to request how you want these accounts managed after your death, Google offers a function called Inactive Account Manager.

Using this function, you must first choose the amount of time—3, 6, 12, or 18 months—that must pass without any activity before the Inactive Account Manager service is triggered. The service lets you select up to 10 different people, who can access your account once Inactive Account Manager goes into effect. You can specify the data those individuals will be allowed to access, including things like photos, contacts, emails, documents, and other content.

With Inactive Account Manager, you can also opt to have your account deleted. If so, you can have Google simply delete all of your content, or you can share your content with your designated contacts before deletion. If you share your content, your contacts will be able to access and download data from your account for 3 months before it’s deleted. 

Should you choose to have your account deleted, your Gmail messages will be permanently deleted, and all data and content in all of your other Google-based accounts like YouTube, Google Drive, and Google Photos will also be deleted. If you die without setting up Inactive Account Manager, Google will automatically delete your account following two years of inactivity. 

Finally, because Google owns YouTube, and YouTube videos have the potential to earn revenue indefinitely, it’s vital that you use the Inactive Account Manager to protect this potentially lucrative asset following your death. Additionally, you’ll also want to include these intangible assets in your estate plan, so they can be protected and passed on to your loved ones in the most beneficial way possible. 

On that note, be sure to check back next week, to read part two of this series. In that article, we’ll continue our discussion about how the most popular internet platforms deal with your account after your death. From there, we’ll conclude the series by covering the most effective methods for including these accounts—and other types of digital assets—in your estate plan.[ PFL: Insert hyperlink behind underlined text to next week’s blog article when ready ]

Until then, if you need support or advice on the best ways to protect and pass on your assets—digital or otherwise—reach out to your Personal Family Lawyer® to discuss your options. Our Life & Legacy Planning Process is designed to ensure that all of your tangible and intangible assets, including your family legacy, are preserved and passed on seamlessly in the event of your death or incapacity. Contact us today to learn more. 

This article is a service of Sahmra A Stevenson Esq., Personal Family Lawyer®. We do not just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $450 session at no charge. 

You’ve most likely dedicated significant time and energy to creating a vision for your business, executing that vision, and even writing up a detailed business plan for the growth of your business. Yet far fewer business owners put the same effort into planning for their company’s continued success following their retirement, incapacity, or death.

However, not planning for the future of your business once you are no longer around to run the company could have disastrous consequences for you, your team, your clients/customers, and your family. And of all the potential risks facing your business, the two that are impossible for you to avoid are your incapacity and death—indeed, no one is immune to old age, illness, or death

Given this liability, creating an estate plan for the continued success of your business should you become incapacitated or when you die is just as critical as any other planning you do for your business, if not more so. The best part is that when you create an estate plan for your business, or a succession plan, it makes your company more resilient, less dependent on you overall, and can greatly improve your ability to take vacations, and have the freedom from your business you probably desire. 

WHAT IS A BUSINESS SUCCESSION PLAN? 

A business succession plan is an estate plan for your business. And that plan will include several strategies, such as life insurance for liquidity, a buy-sell agreement (covering the buyout of partners or other shareholders), and it should also include a trust to spell out the future management of your business. Without a trust in place, your business will likely be stuck in a totally unnecessary court process called probate (described more below), which could interrupt your company’s continued operation and even cause the loss of everything you’ve worked so hard to build.

A WILL ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH

When it comes to creating an estate plan, most people typically think of a will. While it’s possible to leave your company to someone in your will, it’s far from the ideal option. That’s because, upon your death, all assets passed through a will must first go through the court process known as probate. And the cost, time, and complexity involved when the court makes decisions about your business assets is completely unnecessary.

During probate, the court oversees your will’s administration to ensure your assets (including your business) are distributed according to your wishes. But probate can take months, or even years, to complete, and it can be quite expensive, which can seriously disrupt your cash flow and your company’s operation. What’s more, probate is a public process, potentially leaving your business affairs open to your competitors.

Furthermore, a will only goes into effect upon your death, so it would do nothing to protect your business should you become incapacitated by illness or injury before your eventual death. In fact, if you only have a will in place (or have no estate plan at all), in the event of your incapacity, your family would have to petition the court for guardianship in order to manage your business as well as your other personal and financial affairs.

Like probate, the court process associated with guardianship in the event of your incapacity can be long and costly. And in the end, whether it’s a family member or professional guardian agency, there’s no guarantee the individual the court ultimately names as guardian would be the best person to run your company.

TRUSTS PROTECT YOUR BUSINESS & FAMILY

Given the drawbacks associated with a will, a much better way to ensure your business’ continued success is by placing your company in a revocable living trust. A living trust is not required to go through probate, and all assets placed within the trust are immediately transferred to the person, or persons, of your choice in the event of your death or incapacity, without the need for any court intervention.

Upon your death or incapacity, having your business held in trust would allow for the smooth transition of control of your company, without the time, expense, and hassle associated with probate or guardianship. And using a trust, you can choose the individual(s) you think will be best suited to run your company in your absence, whether that absence is permanent (your death) or temporary (your incapacity). And within the trust, you can create a business succession plan, which would not only name your successor, but also provide him or her with detailed—and legally binding—instructions for how you want the business run when you are gone.

Finally, trusts are not open to the public, so your company’s internal affairs would remain private, and the transfer of ownership would take place in your lawyer’s office, not a courtroom, and on your family’s time.

Although the majority of business owners will get suitable protection for their business using a living trust, for the most airtight asset protection, you may want to consider setting up a specialized irrevocable trust. Such irrevocable trusts are quite complex, and they are not the right choice for everyone, so ask us, as your Family Business Lawyer™ to find out if an irrevocable trust would be suitable for your particular company.

A COMPREHENSIVE SUCCESSION PLAN

While placing your business in a trust is an effective way to protect your company upon your death or incapacity, it’s merely one part of a comprehensive business succession plan, which as mentioned earlier typically includes other estate planning strategies, such as business insurance, life insurance, and a buy-sell agreement. For the maximum level of protection, meet with us, your Family Business Lawyer™ to ensure your business has all of the necessary legal protections in place.

Even if you have an existing estate plan, you should have us review it to make sure you’ve covered all of your bases, and your plan has been properly updated. As your Family Business Lawyer™, we use a 50-point assessment to analyze your estate plan, which needs to be consistently updated to account for changes in your life, assets, and the law. 

In our assessment, we will review your business and its assets, and discuss all of the different tools available to ensure the company and wealth you’ve worked so hard to build will survive—and thrive—no matter what happens to you. Taking these actions will not only help shield your company and family from unforeseen tragedy, but it will give you the peace of mind needed to take your business to the next level. Schedule your appointment today to get your plan handled.

This article is a service of Sahmra Stevenson Esq., Family Business Lawyer™. We offer a complete spectrum of legal services for businesses and can help you make the wisest choices on how to deal with your business throughout life and in the event of your death. We also offer a LIFT Start-Up Session™ or a LIFT Audit for an ongoing business, which includes a review of all the legal, financial, and tax systems you need for your business. Call us today to schedule.

2022 ESTATE PLANNING CHECKUP: IS YOUR ESTATE PLAN UP-TO-DATE?

This year,  Estate Planning Awareness Week runs from October 17th to 23rd, and one of our primary goals is to educate you on the vital importance of not only preparing an estate plan, but also keeping your plan up-to-date. While you almost surely understand the importance of creating an estate plan, you may not know that keeping your plan current is every bit as important as creating a plan to begin with.

In fact, outside of not creating any estate plan at all, outdated estate plans are one of the most common estate planning mistakes we encounter. We’ll get called by the loved ones of someone who has become incapacitated or died with a plan that no longer works because it was not properly updated. Unfortunately, once something happens, it’s too late to adjust your plan, and the loved ones you leave behind will be stuck with the mess you’ve left, or they could end up in a costly and traumatic court process that can drag out for months or even years.

Estate planning is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done type of deal. To ensure your plan works properly, it should continuously evolve along with your life circumstances and other changing conditions. Regardless of who you are, your life will inevitably change: families change, assets change, laws change, and goals change. 

In the absence of any major life events, we recommend reviewing your estate plan annually. However, there are several common life events that require you to immediately update your plan—that is, if you want it to actually work and keep your family out of court and out of conflict. To this end, if any of the following events occur in your life, contact us, your Personal Family Lawyer® right away to amend your estate plan.

LIFE EVENTS THAT NECESSITATE AN IMMEDIATE REVIEW OF YOUR ESTATE PLAN

01 | YOU GET MARRIED:

Marriage not only changes your relationship status; it changes your legal status. Regardless of whether it’s your first marriage or fourth, you must take the proper steps to ensure your estate plan properly reflects your current wishes and needs.

After tying the knot, some of your most pressing concerns include naming your new spouse as a beneficiary on your insurance policies and retirement accounts, granting him or her Medical Power Of Attorney and/or Durable Financial Power Of Attorney (if that’s your wish), and adding him or her to your will and/or trust

02 | YOU GET DIVORCED:

Because divorce is such a stressful process, estate planning often gets overshadowed by the other dramatic changes happening. But failing to update your plan for divorce can have terrible consequences.

Once divorce proceedings start, you’ll need to ensure your future ex is no longer eligible to receive any of your assets or make financial and medical decisions on your behalf—unless that’s your wish. Once the divorce is finalized and your property is divided, you’ll need to adjust your estate plan to match your new asset profile and living situation.

03 | YOU GIVE BIRTH OR ADOPT:

Welcoming a new addition to your family can be a joyous occasion, but it also demands entirely new levels of planning and responsibility. At the top of your to-do list should be legally naming both long and short-term guardians for your child. Our Kids Protection Plan offers everything you need to complete this process for free right now.

Once you’ve named guardians, consider putting other estate planning vehicles, such as a Revocable Living Trust, in place for your kids. These planning tools can make certain the assets you want your child to inherit will be passed on in the most effective and beneficial way possible for everyone involved. Consult with us, your Personal Family Lawyer® to determine which planning strategies are best suited for your family situation.

04 | YOU HAVE A MINOR CHILD REACH THE AGE OF MAJORITY:

Once your kids become legal adults—which is age 18 or 21, depending on your state—many areas of their life that were once under your control will become entirely their responsibility. And if your kids don’t have the proper legal documents in place, you could face a costly and traumatic ordeal should something happen to them.  

For instance, if your child were to get into a serious car accident and require hospitalization, you would no longer have the automatic authority to make decisions about his or her medical treatment or the ability to manage their financial affairs. Without legal documentation, you wouldn’t even be able to access your child’s medical records or bank accounts without a court order.

To prevent your family from going through an expensive and unnecessary court process, speak with your kids about the importance of estate planning, and meet with us to ensure they have the proper legal documents in place as they start their journey into adulthood.

05 | A LOVED ONE DIES:

The death of a family member, partner, or close friend can have serious consequences for both your life and estate plan. If the deceased person was included in your plan, you need to update it accordingly to fill any gaps his or her death may create. From naming new beneficiaries, executors, and guardians to identifying new heirs to receive assets allocated to the deceased, make sure your plan addresses all voids created by a death in the family as soon as possible.

06 | YOU GET SERIOUSLY ILL OR INJURED:

As with death, illness and injury are an unavoidable part of life. If you’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness or are involved in a life-changing accident, you may want to review the people you’ve chosen to handle your medical decisions as well as how those decisions should be made. The person you want to serve as your healthcare proxy can change with time, so be sure your plan reflects your current wishes.

07 | YOU MOVE TO A NEW STATE:

 Estate planning laws can vary widely from state to state, so if you move to a different state, you’ll need to review and/or revise your plan to ensure it complies with your new home’s legal requirements. And because some estate planning laws are complex, you’ll want to meet with us to make certain your plan will still work exactly as you desire in your new location.

08 | YOUR ASSETS OR LIABILITIES CHANGE SIGNIFICANTLY: 

Whenever the value of your estate changes dramatically—whether an increase or decrease, or even just the acquisition or sale of assets— you should revisit and update your plan. Whether you inherit a fortune, take out a new loan, retire, sell a home or business, buy a home or business, or change your investment portfolio, your plan should be adjusted accordingly.

09 | YOU BUY OR SELL A BUSINESS:

 If you plan to sell a business, you can implement estate planning strategies to avoid almost all of your taxes—as long as you contact us ahead of time. And, of course, if you are buying a business, you’ll want to ensure your plan is updated to take into account your succession plans for the new venture.

For every business you own, you should consider creating a buy-sell agreement and a business succession plan to protect both your business and your family in case something happens to you. In your plan, you can not only decide who will take over your role as the company’s owner should something happen to you, but you can also provide him or her with a detailed road map for how the business should be run in your absence with a comprehensive business succession plan.

10 | THE FEDERAL ESTATE-TAX EXEMPTION OR YOUR STATE’S ESTATE-TAX EXEMPTION CHANGES SIGNIFICANTLY:

Anytime the federal estate-tax exemption or your state’s estate-tax exemption changes dramatically, we recommend you review your financial assets and your estate plan. Tax laws are constantly changing, so you should consult with us to ensure you are achieving the maximum tax savings possible and your investments are still aligned with your strategic goals in light of the latest changes to the tax code.

OUR SYSTEMS KEEP YOUR PLAN UPDATED—FOR LIFE

Keeping your estate plan updated is so important that we’ve created proprietary systems designed to ensure your plan is revisited consistently, so you don’t need to worry about overlooking anything, as your family, the law, and your assets change over time. Be sure to ask us about these systems during your visit.

Furthermore, because your plan is designed to protect and provide for your loved ones in the event of your death or incapacity, us, your local Personal Family Lawyer® isn’t just here to serve you—we’re here to serve your entire family. Over the years, we’ll take the time to get to know your family members and include them in the planning process, so everyone affected by your plan is well-aware of what your latest planning strategies are and why you made the choices you did, along with knowing exactly what they need to do if something happens to you. And if you are the parent of minor children, we will put safeguards in place to ensure that your kids are never placed into the care of strangers, even temporarily.

LIFE & LEGACY PLANNING

As a Personal Family Lawyer® firm, our estate planning services go far beyond simply creating documents and then never seeing you again. In fact, we will develop a relationship with you and your family that lasts not only for your lifetime, but for the lifetime of your children and their children, if that’s your wish. 

Unlike traditional estate plans, a Life & Legacy Plan is designed to grow and change with you. Us, your local Personal Family Lawyer® makes that possible. We aren’t just a one-time document creator; we are your trusted, lifelong counsel and guide, who works with you to ensure your family stays out of court and out of conflict and grows even closer as a result of the legacy you’re creating.

Ultimately, we’ve discovered that estate planning is about far more than planning for your death and passing on your “estate” to your loved ones—it’s about planning for a life you love and a legacy worth leaving by the choices you make today. And this is why we call our services Life & Legacy Planning. Call us, your Personal Family Lawyer® to get your plan started today.

This article is a service of Sahmra Stevenson, Personal Family Lawyer®. We do not just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $450 session at no charge. 

With the cost of a funeral averaging between $7,000 and $12,000 and steadily increasing each year, at the very least your estate plan should include enough money to cover this final expense. And if you are thinking of simply setting aside money in your will to cover your funeral expenses, you should seriously reconsider, as paying for your funeral through your will can create unnecessary burdens for your loved ones.

Although you can leave money in your will to pay for your funeral expenses, your family won’t be able to access those funds until your estate goes through the court process of probate, which can last months or even years. And since most funeral providers require full payment upfront, your family will likely have to cover your funeral costs out of pocket. Moreover, your loved ones will have to deal with all of this while grieving your death.

If you want to avoid burdening your family with such a hefty bill and the stress that comes with it, you need to use estate planning strategies that do not require probate. While you should meet with us, your Personal Family Lawyer® to find the solution best suited for your unique situation, the following 5 options are among the most commonly used methods for covering funeral expenses without the necessity for probate.

01 | TRADITIONAL INSURANCE

You can purchase a new life insurance policy or add extra coverage to your existing policy to cover funeral expenses. Unlike money left in your will, an insurance policy does not go through probate, and it will pay the death benefit to the named beneficiary as soon as your death certificate is filed with the insurance company. 

02 | BURIAL INSURANCE

In addition to traditional insurance, you can also purchase burial insurance, which is specifically designed to cover funeral expenses. Also known as “final expense”, “memorial” and “preneed” insurance, such policies do not require a medical exam. However, you’ll often pay far more in premiums than what the policy actually pays out.

In fact, due to the hefty premiums and the fact such policies are sold mostly to the poor and uneducated, consumer advocate groups like the Consumer Federation of America consider burial insurance a bad idea and even predatory in some cases due to the fact that these policies are often sold to lower income populations.

One final point about using insurance to pay for your funeral: If you have any type of insurance to cover your funeral, it’s crucial that your family knows about it. Far too often, insurance policies are never cashed in because the family didn’t know they existed. Don’t let this happen to you—make sure your family knows about any insurance policies you have as well as how to locate the necessary paperwork.

03 | PREPAID FUNERAL PLANS

Many funeral homes let you pay for your funeral services in advance, either in a single lump sum or through installments. Also known as pre-need plans, the funeral provider typically puts your money in a trust that pays out upon your death, or buys a burial insurance policy, with itself as the beneficiary.

While prepaid plans may seem like a convenient way to cover your funeral expenses, these plans can have serious drawbacks. As mentioned earlier, if the funeral provider buys burial insurance, you’re likely to see massive premiums compared to what the plan actually pays out. And if they use a trust, the plan might not actually cover the full cost of the funeral, leaving your family on the hook for the difference. Plus, most states have inadequate laws protecting funds in such plans, putting your money at risk if the funeral provider closes or is bought out by another company.

In fact, these plans are considered so risky, the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA), a nonprofit industry watchdog group, advises against purchasing such plans. The only instance where prepaid plans are a good idea, according to the FCA, is if you are facing a Medicaid spend down before going into a nursing home. This is because prepaid funeral plans funded through irrevocable trusts are not considered a countable asset for Medicaid eligibility purposes.

That said, if you’re looking to buy a prepaid funeral plan in order to qualify for Medicaid, be sure to consult with us first, as not all pre-paid funeral plans are actually Medicaid compliant, even if the funeral home says they are. Moreover, if the irrevocable trust is not set up correctly, it may violate Medicaid’s look-back period, which can delay your eligibility for benefits.

04 | PAYABLE-ON-DEATH ACCOUNTS

Many banks offer payable-on-death (POD) accounts, sometimes called Totten Trusts, that you can set up to fund your funeral expenses. The account’s named beneficiary can only access the money upon your death, but you can deposit or withdraw money at any time.

A POD account does not go through probate, so the beneficiary can access the money once your death certificate is issued. POD accounts are FDIC-insured, but such accounts are treated as countable assets by Medicaid, and the interest is subject to income tax.

Another option is to simply open a joint savings account with the person handling your funeral expenses and give them rights of survivorship. However, this gives the person access to your money while you’re alive too, which puts your money at risk if the person goes into debt or gets sued and their creditors come after your account to pay the other person’s debt.

Given this risk, we recommend you consider other options that will allow you to pay your funeral expenses, without leaving your finances vulnerable to another person’s mistakes or poor money management.

05 | LIVING TRUSTS

When you work with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, you don’t need to buy a pre-built trust from a funeral provider. Instead, we can create a customized living trust that allows you to control the funds until your death and name a successor trustee, who is legally bound to use the trust funds to pay for your funeral expenses exactly as the trust terms stipulate.

Furthermore, you can change the terms of your living trust at any time, and you can even dissolve the trust if you need the money for other purposes. Alternatively, if you need an irrevocable trust to help qualify for Medicaid, we can create that type of trust as well, while ensuring the trust stays totally compliant with all of Medicaid’s requirements, so you don’t run afoul of the program’s many complex requirements.

If you are interested in creating a trust to cover your funeral expenses, meet with us, your Personal Family Lawyer® to discuss the options that are best suited for your intended purpose, budget, and family situation.

USE ESTATE PLANNING TO AVOID BURDENING YOUR FAMILY

Although thinking about your eventual death is never easy, with the proper planning, you can make dealing with the aftermath of your death significantly easier for the loved ones you leave behind. To avoid needlessly burdening your family with the expense and stress of planning and paying for your funeral, make sure your estate plan includes the necessary funds to cover this expense, and be sure to use an estate planning strategy that will allow your family to access these funds as quickly and easily as possible—ideally by using an option that avoids probate. 

With so many different options to choose from, consult with us, your Personal Family Lawyer® to find an estate planning vehicle that is best suited for your particular situation. With our guidance and support, we will develop a planning strategy that includes adequate funding to ensure your funeral services are handled in the exact manner you desire—and your family won’t be forced to foot the bill. Contact us today to learn more.

This article is a service of Sahmra A Stevenson, Personal Family Lawyer®. We do not just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $450 session at no charge. 
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