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4 Estate Planning Must-Haves for Unmarried Couples—Part 1

Estate planning is often considered something you only need to worry about once you get married. But the reality is every adult, regardless of age, income level, or marital status, needs to have some fundamental planning strategies in place if you want to keep the people you love out of court and out of conflict.

In fact, estate planning can be even more critical for unmarried couples. Regardless if you’ve been together for decades and act just like a married couple, you likely aren’t viewed as one in the eyes of the law. And in the event one of you becomes incapacitated or when one of you dies, not having any planning in place can have disastrous consequences.

If you’re in a committed relationship and have yet to get—or have no plans to get—married, the following estate planning documents are an absolute must:

Wills and trusts
If you’re unmarried and die without planning, the assets you leave behind will be distributed according to your state’s intestate laws to your family members: parents, siblings, and possibly even other, more distant relatives if you have no living parents or siblings. The state’s laws would provide NO protection for your unmarried partner. Given this, if you want your partner to receive any of your assets upon your death, you need to—at the very least—create a will.

A will details how you want your assets distributed after you die, and you can name your unmarried partner, or even a friend, to inherit some or all of your assets. However, certain assets like life insurance, pensions, and 401(k)s, are not transferred through a will. Instead, those assets will go to the person named in the beneficiary designation, so be sure to name your partner as beneficiary if you’d like him or her to inherit those assets.

However, there could be an even better way.

Although wills and beneficiary designations offer one way for your unmarried partner to inherit your assets, they’re not always the best option. First and foremost, they do not operate in the event of your incapacity, which could occur before your death. In that case, your partner may not have access to needed assets to pay bills, or he or she could potentially even be kicked out of your home by a family member appointed as your guardian during your incapacity.

Moreover, a will requires probate, a court process that can take quite some time to navigate. And finally, assets passed by beneficiary designation go outright to your partner, with no protection from creditors or lawsuits. To protect those assets for your partner, you’ll need a different planning strategy.

A far better option would be to place the assets you want your partner to inherit in a living trust. First off, trusts can be used to transfer assets in the event of your incapacity, not just upon your death. Trusts also do not have to go through probate, saving your partner precious time and money.

What’s more, leaving your assets in a continued trust that your partner could control would ensure the assets are protected from creditors, future relationships, and/or unexpected lawsuits.

Consult with us for help deciding which option—a will or trust—is best suited for passing on your assets.

Durable power of attorney
When it comes to estate planning, most people focus only on what happens when they die. However, it’s just as important—if not even more so—to plan for your potential incapacity due to an accident or illness.

If you become incapacitated and haven’t legally named someone to handle your finances while you’re unable to do so, the court will pick someone for you. And this person could be a family member, who doesn’t care for or want to support your partner, or it could be a professional guardian who will charge hefty fees, possibly draining your estate.

Since it’s unlikely that your unmarried partner will be the court’s first choice, if you want your partner (or even a friend) to manage your finances in the event you become incapacitated, you would grant your partner (or friend) a durable power of attorney.

Durable power of attorney is an estate planning tool that will give your partner immediate authority to manage your financial matters in the event of your incapacity. He or she will have a broad range of powers to handle things like paying your bills and taxes, running your business, collecting government benefits, selling your home, as well as managing your banking and investment accounts.

Granting a durable power of attorney to your partner is especially important if you live together, because without it, the person who is named by the court could legally force your partner out with little to no notice, leaving your partner homeless.

As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can guide you to make informed, educated, and empowered choices to protect yourself and the ones you love most. Contact us today to get started with a Family Wealth Planning Session.

Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series on must-have estate planning strategies for unmarried couples.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t 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 $750 session at no charge.

Pet Trusts Offer Protection for Your Furry Family

If you’re an animal lover and have a pet of your own, you likely consider your pet to be a member of the family. And since your furry friends can provide protection, emotional support, and unconditional love, such consideration is often well deserved. 

In stark contrast, the law considers your pet nothing more than personal property. That means that without plans in place, your pet will be treated just like your couch or vacuum in the event of your death or incapacity.  For example, if you die without including any provisions for your pet’s care in your estate plan and none of your family or friends volunteer to take your pet in, your faithful companion will likely end up in an animal shelter.

While you can leave money for the care or your pet in a will, there will be no continuing oversight to ensure your pet (and the money you leave for its care) will be cared for as you wish, if you do it that way. Indeed, a person who is named as the guardian of your pet in your will could drop the animal off at the shelter and use the money to buy a new TV—and face no penalties for doing so.

What’s more, a will is required to go through a court process known as probate, which can last for years and leave your pet in limbo during that entire time. And a will only goes into effect upon your death, so if you’re incapacitated by accident or illness, it will be useless for protecting your pet.

Pet trusts
Given these limitations, the best way to ensure your animal companions are properly taken care of in the event of your death or incapacity is to create a pet trust.

Pet trusts go into effect immediately and allow you to lay out detailed, legally binding rules for how the funds in the trust can be used. Pet trusts can cover multiple pets, work in cases of incapacity as well as death, and they remain in effect until the last surviving animal dies.

Here are a few of the most important things to consider when setting up a pet trust:

Caregivers: The most important decision when creating a pet trust is naming the caretaker. The caretaker will have custody of your pet and is responsible for your pet’s daily care for the remainder of your pet’s life. As with naming a guardian for your children, make certain you choose someone you know will watch over and love your pet just as you would.

Consider the caretaker’s physical ability—naming someone elderly to raise your Great Dane puppy might be asking too much. Also make certain your pet fits in with the caretaker’s family members and other pets. Discuss your wishes ahead of time with a potential caretaker—never assume they’re willing to take on the responsibility.

In case your first-choice for caretaker is unable to take in your pet, name at least one or two alternates. If you don’t know any suitable caregivers, there are a variety of charitable groups that can provide for your pet if you’re no longer able to.

Trustees: Trustees are tasked with managing the trust’s funds and ensuring your wishes for the animal’s care are carried out in the manner the trust spells out. Given the potential conflict of interest, you may consider naming someone other than the caregiver as trustee.

In this way, you now have two people who are invested in the care of your pet—and money—are properly handled.

Caretaking instructions: At the very least, your caretaking instructions should outline your pet’s basic requirements: dietary needs, exercise regimen, medications, and veterinary care. Be sure you think about all your pet’s future needs, including extra services like grooming, boarding, and walking.

Beyond basic care, you can also lay out instructions for just about any other special treatment you want your furry friend to receive. From sleeping arrangements and yummy treats to weekly visits to the park and favorite toys, a pet trust can provide Fido and Fluffy with whatever lifestyle you wish for them.

Finally, don’t forget to address what you want done at the end of your pet’s life, such as burial, cremation, or memorial services.

Funding: When determining how much money to put aside for your pet’s care, you should carefully consider the pet’s age, health, and care needs. Remember, you’re covering the cost of caring for the animal for the rest of its life, and even basic expenses can add up over time.

But most pet owners want their beloved pets to receive more than just the bare necessities. Given this, make sure you calculate the costs for any special treatments or services you include in the trust and leave enough money to pay for them.

And if you end up leaving more money behind than needed, you can always name a remainder beneficiary, such as a family member or charity, to inherit any funds not spent on the pet.

Do right by your furry family
Consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer® for help creating a pet trust. We can make certain that you have all the necessary terms included in your estate plan to ensure your pet receives the kind of love and care it deserves when you’re no longer around to provide it. Contact us for more information.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t 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 $750 session at no charge.

Dementia and Guns: A Tragedy Waiting to Happen

It’s common for families of those with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia to realize that at some point, their loved one shouldn’t be allowed to drive. But fewer people are aware they should exercise the same level of caution when it comes to restricting their loved one’s access to firearms.

This was one of the findings of a May 2018 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine covering firearm ownership among Alzheimer’s patients. The study noted that even though 89% of Americans support restricting access to firearms for those with mental illness, there’s been little attention focused on limiting firearm access among elderly dementia patients. 

Indeed, there are currently no federal gun laws prohibiting the purchase or possession of firearms by persons with dementia. And only two states—Hawaii and Texas—have laws restricting gun access for dementia patients.

A ticking time bomb
This lack of attention comes despite an increasing number of incidents involving elderly dementia patients shooting and killing family members and caregivers after confusing them for intruders. With so many Baby Boomers now entering retirement age, this dangerous situation could get much worse.

In fact, the number of people with dementia is expected to double to around 14 million in the next 20 years, with the vast majority of those over age 65. Since nearly half of people over 65 either own a gun or live with someone who does, it’s clear that firearm safety should be a top priority for those with elderly family members—even if they don’t currently have any signs of dementia. That said, just talking about restricting someone’s access to guns can be highly controversial and polarizing. Many people, especially veterans and those in law enforcement, consider guns—and their right to own them—an important part of their identity.

Given this, the study’s authors recommended that families should talk with their elderly loved ones early on about the fact that one day they might have to give up their guns. Physicians suggest bringing up the topic of firearms relatively soon after individual’s initial dementia diagnosis.

This discussion should be similar to those related to driving, acknowledging the emotions involved and allowing the person to maintain independence and decision control for as long as it’s safe. Even though this can be a very touchy subject, putting off this discussion can literally be life threatening.

All part of the plan
Since it relates to so many other end-of-life matters, this discussion should take place as part of the overall estate planning process. One way to handle the risk is to create a legally binding agreement laying out a “firearm retirement date” that’s similar to advance directives addressing the elderly relinquishing their driving privileges.

Such an agreement allows the gun owner to name a trusted family member or friend to take ownership of their firearms once they’re reached a certain age or stage of dementia. In this way, the process may seem more like passing on a beloved family heirloom and less like giving up their guns.

Moreover, the transfer of certain types of firearms must adhere to strict state and federal regulations. Unless the new owner is in full compliance with these requirements, they could inadvertently violate the law simply by taking possession of the guns.

In light of this risk, you should consider creating a “gun trust“, an estate planning tool specially designed to deal with the ownership of firearms. With a gun trust, the firearm is legally owned by the trust, so most of the transfer requirements are avoided, making it a lot easier for family members to manage access after the original owner’s death.

Indeed, gun trusts can be a valuable planning strategy even for gun owners without dementia. Speak with us to see if a gun trust would be a suitable option for your family.

A matter of life and death
If you have an elderly family member with access to guns, you should consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer® as soon as possible. We can not only offer guidance on the most tactful ways to discuss the matter, but also help you set up the appropriate estate planning strategies to ensure the firearms are properly secured and transferred.

Given the grave risks involved, managing the elderly’s access to firearms should be taken every bit as seriously—if not more so—as managing their ability to operate motor vehicles. The safety of both your loved one and everyone who cares for them depends on it. Contact your Personal Family Lawyer® today to learn more about your options.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t 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 $750 session at no charge.

Saving What Matters: 12 Must-Have Items To Pack in Your Go-Bag

It’s the middle of the night. The authorities just notified you that you have 20 minutes to evacuate your home before a raging wildfire cuts off the exit from your neighborhood, leaving you trapped. The fire is advancing at the rate of a football field every second, so the actions you take in the next few moments will determine whether you and your family live or die. 

While this may sound like a scene from a blockbuster disaster movie, it’s the very scenario Judy Shannon faced in December 2017. And it’s something we can expect to see more and more as the impact of climate change sets in.

Judy was at home with her two young children, her elderly mother, and a puppy, when an out-of-control wildfire threatened to engulf her Ventura County home in Southern California. Fortunately, she and her family escaped without injury. But her home, her neighborhood, and hundreds of other buildings in the area were burned to the ground. Shopping for supplies in the aftermath, Judy reflected on whether she could have done more to ensure her family’s safety in those last moments before evacuating.

“As I look back, I wonder, ‘Did I do enough?’” Judy recalled. “I can honestly say I didn’t have much choice in those 20 minutes. I responded without much thought and felt a sense of being carried, or moved about, with each step.” Judy highlights a critical aspect of facing such life-threatening emergencies: You won’t have time to think; you must be prepared to act and act fast. Your life and the lives of those in your family absolutely depend on it.

Be ready to go
With natural disasters like wildfires, floods, and hurricanes becoming more frequent and destructive with every passing year, the need for you to be ready to act is more pressing than ever. And as Judy’s story highlights, when you have mere minutes to evacuate, you won’t have time to think about what you should bring with you to survive the days—or weeks—to come.

To be optimally prepared, take a cue from the U.S. military and police agencies. These organizations require their members to always have a “go-bag” on-hand packed with the essential items needed to survive for at least three days following a disaster.

While numerous online retailers sell fully equipped go-bags for such emergencies, and both FEMA and the American Red Cross provide checklists to help you pack your own, here we offer a basic summary of the most-recommended supplies.

This list should give you some idea of what items you should have ready to go in case you need to get out of your home within minutes.

1) ID and other essential documents:
Bring copies of your passport, driver’s license, and/or state ID card and store them in a sealed Ziplock bag. Other documents to consider packing include the deed to your home, vehicle titles/registration, printed maps, and a recent family photo with faces clearly visible for easy identification.

2) Cash: Carry at least $250 in relatively small bills and keep it with your ID in a waterproof bag.

3) Shelter: A lightweight tent, along with mylar emergency blankets can help keep you warm and dry.

4) Water and a water filter: You’ll need at least one gallon of water per person per day. Bring as much bottled water as possible, but also include a water purification straw and/or purification tablets, along with a steel container to boil water in.

5) A multi-tool: These modern-day Swiss Army knives come with a wide array of essential tools, from a knife and screwdriver to tweezers and a can opener.

6) First-aid kit and prescription medications: Whether you buy one ready-made or pack your own, the likelihood of injury skyrockets in the wake disasters, so not having a first-aid kit can be deadly. And don’t forget to include prescription medications and other life-sustaining medical supplies if needed.

7) Light: Flashlights with extra batteries are great, but headlamps are even better because they’re ultra-compact and leave your hands free.

8) An emergency whistle: Emergency whistles can alert rescue crews and help locate others in low-visibility conditions.

9) Solar-powered emergency radio and cellphone charger: Without power, you’ll need a way to stay in touch with the outside world. Today you can find devices that include a combination radio, cell-phone charger, and flashlight all in one, with the extra option of hand-cranked power to keep things charged even in the dark.

10) Sanitary items: Pack toilet paper, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, soap, as well as tampons and/or pads if needed.

11) Clothes: You only need enough clothes to keep you warm and comfortable for a few days, so don’t try to bring your entire wardrobe. Stick to essentials like underwear, socks, extra shoes, a jacket, a poncho, a hat, and gloves. You’ll need to tailor your clothing to the climate and region you live in, so colder locations may require extra outerwear.

12) Food: Focus on high-protein, high-caloric foods that will give you the energy you need to live and get from point A to point B. The most recommended options include, energy bars, MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat), freeze-dried survival food, and meal-replacement shakes.

Stay totally safe and secure
While go-bags are a critical part of helping your family survive the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster or other emergency, they’re just a start. For instance, this list doesn’t address any of your precious sentimental items, such as photos, old love letters, and treasured cards from the past. Nor does it mention estate planning documents or insurance policies.

Copies of your insurance policies and estate planning documents items should be uploaded to the cloud and stored online. You should also store sentimental items, like family histories and photos online, so you don’t have to worry about packing any of that in the event of a natural disaster. Safely storing your sentimental items online is so important, we offer this as a service to our clients, so be sure to ask us about that.

Of course, to keep your family totally safe and secure, you’ll need to make sure you have the right insurance coverage and necessary legal documents in place to cover every possible emergency contingency. Contact us as your Personal Family Lawyer® to learn exactly what you need and how we can support you.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t 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 $750 session at no charge.

Think Your Homeowners Insurance Offers Protection From Natural Disasters? Think Again!

From wildfires in California and hurricanes in Texas to floods in West Virginia, hardly any area of the U.S. is immune from the threat of natural disasters. And according to a report released by the government regarding climate change and its impact on Black Friday, it’s only going to get worse. Despite this threat, many homeowners still lack the insurance needed to protect their property and possessions from such catastrophes.

In fact, roughly two-thirds of all homeowners are underinsured for natural disasters, according to United Policyholders (UP), a nonprofit organization for insurance consumers. One contributing factor to this lack of coverage is the mistaken belief that homeowners insurance offers protection from such calamities. In reality, natural disasters are typically not covered by standard homeowners policies.

In order to obtain protection, you often need to purchase separate policies that cover specific types of natural disasters. Here, we’ve highlighted the types of insurance coverage available and how the policies work.

Wildfires
While homeowners insurance typically doesn’t pay for damage caused by natural disasters, most policies do protect against fire damage, including wildfires like the recent ones in California. The only instances of fire damage homeowners policies won’t cover are fires caused by arson or when fire destroys a home that’s been vacant for at least 30 days when the fire occurred.

That said, not all homeowners policies are created equal, so you should check your policy to make certain that it includes enough coverage to do three things: replace your home’s structure, replace your belongings, and cover your living expenses while your home is being repaired, known as “loss of use” coverage.

In certain areas that are extremely high-risk for wildfires, it  can be difficult to find a company to insure your home. In such cases, you should look into state-sponsored fire insurance like California’s FAIR Plan.

Earthquakes
Unlike fires, earthquakes are typically not covered by homeowners policies. To protect your home against quakes, you’ll need a freestanding earthquake insurance policy. And contrary to popular belief, Californians aren’t the only ones who should be worried.

Most parts of the U.S. are at some risk for earthquakes. Indeed, the U.S. Geological Survey found that between the 20 years from 1975 to 1995 earthquakes occurred in every state except Florida, Iowa, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. To gauge the risk in your area, consult with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) earthquake hazard map.

While earthquake insurance is available practically everywhere, policies in high-risk areas typically come with high deductibles, ranging from 10% to 15% of the home’s value. What’s more, though earthquake insurance covers damage directly caused by the quake, some related damages such as flooding are likely not covered. Carefully review your policy to see what’s included—and what’s not.

Floods
Though homeowners insurance generally covers flood damage caused by faulty infrastructure like leaky pipes, nearly all policies exclude flood damage caused by natural events like heavy rain, overflowing rivers, and hurricanes. You’ll need stand-alone flood insurance to protect your property and possessions from these events.

The threat from flooding is so widespread, Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in 1968, which allows homeowners in flood-prone areas to purchase flood insurance backed by the U.S. government. In some coastal regions, especially where hurricanes are prevalent, you might even be required to buy flood insurance. To determine the risk for your property, consult FEMA’s Flood Map service center.

Even if you live in a location where flood insurance isn’t required, you may want to consider buying it anyway. Indeed, 90% of all natural disasters include some form of flooding, and more than 20% of flood-damage claims come from properties outside high-risk flood zones.

Hurricanes and Tornadoes
Most homeowners policies do offer coverage for wind-related damage. However, it depends on the type of storm that caused the damage. For example, wind damage from tornadoes and even some tropical storms is typically covered, but wind damage from hurricanes generally requires a separate windstorm policy, or in some cases, a hurricane rider.

Because damage from hurricanes is often measured in the billions, these windstorm policies usually have higher deductibles that are often based on a percentage of your home’s value, instead of a fixed dollar amount. Some policies also come with a cap on coverage, so be sure to review exactly what type and amount of coverage your policy offers.

Of course, high winds aren’t the only threat posed by hurricanes. Such tropical systems can also cause severe flooding, which is frequently the storm’s most damaging element. But as mentioned before, whether it’s caused by a hurricane or a tornado, flooding is not generally covered by homeowners insurance. For flood protection, you’ll need to purchase a separate flood insurance policy through the NFIP.

Get the disaster coverage you need today
To make certain you have the necessary insurance coverage to protect your home and belongings from natural disasters, consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®. We’ll help evaluate the specific risks for your area, assess the value of your assets, and support you to determine the optimal levels of insurance you should have in place.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala P.C., Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t 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 $750 session at no charge.

Don’t Forget to Include Your Digital Assets In Your Estate Plan—Part 2

In the first part of this series, we discussed the importance of including your digital assets in your estate plan. http://rantala.com/blog/2018/11/20/dont-forget-to-include-your-digital-assets-in-your-estate-plan-part-1/

Here, we’ll talk about the best ways to get started with this process. 

Today, estate planning encompasses not just tangible property like finances and real estate, but also digital assets like cryptocurrency, blogs, and social media. With so much of our lives now lived online, it’s vital you put the proper estate planning provisions in place to ensure your digital assets are effectively protected and passed on in the event of your incapacity or death.

However, because many types of online assets have only been in existence for a handful of years, there are very few laws governing how they should be dealt with through estate planning. And due to their virtual and often anonymous nature, just locating and accessing some of these assets can be extremely difficult for those you leave behind.

Given these unique challenges, last week we discussed some of the most common types of digital assets and the legal landscape surrounding them. Here, we offer some practical tips to ensure all your digital property is effectively incorporated into your estate plan.

Best practices for including digital assets in your estate plan
If you’re like most people, you probably own numerous digital assets, some of which likely have significant monetary and/or sentimental value. Other types of online property may have no value for anyone other than yourself or be something you’d prefer your family and friends not access or inherit.

To ensure all your digital assets are accounted for, managed, and passed on in exactly the way you want, you should take the following steps:

Create an inventory: Start by creating a list of all your digital assets, including the related login information and passwords. Password management apps such as LastPass can help simplify this effort. From there, store the list in a secure location, and provide detailed instructions to your fiduciary about how to access it and get into the accounts. Just like money you’ve hidden in a safe, if no one knows where it is or how to unlock it, these assets will likely be lost forever.

Back up assets stored in the cloud: If any of your digital assets are stored in the cloud, back them up to a computer and/or other physical storage device on a regular basis, so fiduciaries and family members can access them with fewer obstacles. That said, don’t forget to also include the location and login info of these cloud-based assets in case you don’t have a chance—or forget—to back them all up.

Add your digital assets to your estate plan: Include specific instructions in your will, trust, and/or other estate planning documents about the heir(s) you want to inherit each asset, along with how you’d like the accounts managed in the future, if that’s an option. Some assets might be of no value to your family or be something you don’t want them to access, so you should specify that those accounts and files be closed and/or deleted by your fiduciary. Do NOT provide the specific account info, logins, or passwords in your estate planning documents, which can be easily read by others. This is especially true for wills, which become public record upon your death. Keep this information stored in a secure place, and let your fiduciary know how to find and use it. Consider a service such as Directive Communication Systems to support you here. It’s also a good idea to include terms in your estate plan allowing your fiduciary to hire an IT consultant if necessary. This will help him or her manage and troubleshoot any technical challenges that come up, particularly with highly complex and/or encrypted assets.

Limit access: In your plan, you should also include instructions for your fiduciary about what level of access you want him or her to have. For example, do you want your executor to be able to read all of your emails and social media posts before deleting them or passing them on to your heirs? If there are any assets you want to limit access to, we can help you include the necessary terms in your plan to ensure your privacy is honored.

Include relevant hardware: Don’t forget that your estate plan should also include provisions for any physical devices—smartphones, computers, tablets, flash drives—on which the digital assets are stored. Having quick access to this equipment will make it much easier for your fiduciary to access, manage, and transfer the online assets. Since the data can be wiped clean, you can even leave these devices to someone other than the person who inherits the digital property stored on it.

Check service providers’ access-authorization tools: Carefully review the terms and conditions for your online accounts. Some service providers like Google, Facebook, and Instagram have tools in place that allow you to easily designate access to others in the event of your death. If such a function is offered, use it to document who you want to have access to these accounts.  Just make certain the people you named to inherit your digital assets using the providers’ access-authorization tools match those you’ve named in your estate plan. If not, the provider will probably give priority access to the person named with its tool, not your estate plan.


Truly comprehensive estate planning
With technology rapidly evolving, it’s critical that your estate planning strategies evolve at the same time to adapt to this changing environment. With us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can help you update your plan to include not only your physical wealth and property, but all your digital assets, too.

We know how valuable online property can be, and unlike many lawyers, we have the experience and skills to ensure these assets are preserved and passed on seamlessly.
Moreover, we can do this while respecting and protecting your privacy rights. Contact us today to get started.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t 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 $750 session at no charge.

Don’t Forget to Include Your Digital Assets In Your Estate Plan—Part 1

If you’ve created an estate plan, it likely includes traditional wealth and assets like finances, real estate, personal property, and family heirlooms. But unless your plan also includes your digital assets, there’s a good chance this online property will be lost forever following your death or incapacity. 

What’s more, even if these assets are included in your plan, unless your executor and/or trustee knows the accounts exist and how to access them, you risk burdening your family and friends with the often lengthy and expensive process of locating and accessing them. And depending on the terms of service governing your online accounts, your heirs may not be able to inherit some types of digital assets at all.

With our lives increasingly being lived online, our digital assets can be quite extensive and extremely valuable. Given this, it’s more important than ever that your estate plan includes detailed provisions to protect and pass on such property in the event of your incapacity or death.

Types of digital assets

Digital assets generally fall into two categories: those with financial value and those with sentimental value.

Those with financial value typically include cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, online payment accounts like PayPal, domain names, websites and blogs generating revenue, as well as other works like photos, videos, music, and writing that generate royalties. Such assets have real financial worth for your heirs, not only in the immediate aftermath of your death or incapacity, but potentially for years to come.

Digital assets with sentimental value include email accounts, photos, video, music, publications, social media accounts, apps, and websites or blogs with no revenue potential. While this type of property typically won’t be of any monetary value, it can offer incredible sentimental value and comfort for your family when you’re no longer around.

Owned vs licensed
Though you might not know it, you don’t actually own many of your digital assets at all. For example, you do own certain assets like cryptocurrency and PayPal accounts, so you can transfer ownership of these in a will or trust. But when you purchase some digital property, such as Kindle e-books and iTunes music files, all you really own is a license to use it. And in many cases, that license is for your personal use only and is non-transferable.

Whether or not you can transfer such licensed property depends almost entirely on the account’s Terms of Service Agreements (TOSA) to which you agreed (or more likely, simply clicked a box without reading) upon opening the account. While many TOSA restrict access to accounts only to the original user, some allow access by heirs or executors in certain situations, while others say nothing about transferability. Carefully review the TOSA of your online accounts to see whether you own the asset itself or just a license to use it. If the TOSA states the asset is licensed, not owned, and offers no method for transferring your license, you’ll likely have no way to pass the asset to anyone else, even if it’s included in your estate plan.

To make matters more complicated, though you heirs may be able to access your digital assets if you’ve provided them with your account login and passwords, doing so may actually violate the TOSA and/or privacy laws. In order to legally access such accounts, your heirs will have to prove they have the right to access it, a process which up until recently was a major legal grey area.

Fortunately, a growing number of states are adopting a law that helps clarify how your digital assets can be accessed in the event if your death or incapacity.

The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act
The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which has been adopted in 37 states so far, lays out guidelines under which fiduciaries, such as executors and trustees, can access these digital accounts. The Act allows you to grant a fiduciary access to your digital accounts upon your death or incapacity, either by opting them in with an online tool furnished by the service provider or through your estate plan.

The Act offers three-tiers for prioritizing access. The first tier gives priority to the online provider’s access-authorization tool for handling accounts of a decedent. For example, Google’s “inactive account manager” tool lets you choose who can access and manage your account after you pass away. Facebook has a similar tool that allows you to designate someone as a “legacy contact” to manage your personal profile.

If an online tool is not available or if the decedent did not use it, the law’s second tier gives priority to directions given by the decedent in a will, trust, power of attorney, or other means. If no such instructions are provided, then the third tier stipulates the provider’s TOSA will govern access.

As long as you use the provider’s online tool—if one is available—and/or include instructions in your estate plan, your digital assets should be accessible per your wishes in states that have adopted the law. However, all 50 states are expected to adopt the Act soon, so even if the law isn’t on the books in your state, you should take it into serious consideration when planning.

Look to us for guidance
In the second part of this series, we’ll offer practical steps for preserving and passing on your digital assets in your estate plan. Meanwhile, contact us as your Personal Family Lawyer® if you have any questions about your online property or how to include it in your estate plan.

Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series, discussing the best ways to protect and preserve your digital assets through estate planning.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t 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 $750 session at no charge.

How to Fix Errors in Your Credit Report

While some of those TV commercials for free credit-score report companies are pretty funny, having errors on your credit report is no laughing matter. Indeed, your credit score is one of the main factors determining your access to loans, credit cards, housing, and sometimes even jobs.

From late payments that were actually made on time and paid debts that are still listed in collections to fake accounts opened in your name by identity thieves, there are all kinds of errors that can end up in your report. What’s more, even if the mistakes were made by the banks, lenders, and/or credit bureaus, they have no obligation to fix them—unless you report them.

Given this, it’s vital to monitor your credit score regularly and take immediate action to have any errors corrected. Here, we’ll discuss a few of the most common mistakes found in credit reports and how to fix them.

Finding and fixing errors
The first step to ensure your credit report stays error-free is to obtain a copy of your report from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. You can get free access to your reports and even helpful credit monitoring services from companies like CreditKarma.com.

Check each of the reports closely for errors. Some of the most common mistakes include:

Misspellings and other errors in your name, address, and/or Social Security number
Accounts that are mistakenly reported more than once
Loan inquiries you didn’t authorize
Payments inadvertently applied to the wrong account or noted as unpaid, when they were in fact paid
Old debts that have been paid off or should’ve been removed from your report after seven years
Fake accounts and debts created by identity thieves

Filing a dispute
If anything is inaccurate on your report, file a dispute with the credit bureaus as soon as possible. In fact, notifying these agencies is a prerequisite if you eventually decide to take legal action. Note that if a mistake appears on more than one report, you’ll need to file a dispute with each credit bureau involved.

To ensure your dispute has the best chances of success, follow these steps:

  • Use the appropriate forms: Each credit bureau has different processes for filing a dispute—whether via regular mail or online—so check the particular bureau’s website for instructions and forms. You can find sample letters showing how to dispute credit reports on the FTC and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) websites.
  • Be absolutely clear: Clearly identify each disputed item in your report, state the facts explaining why the information is incorrect, and request a deletion or correction. If you’ve found multiple errors, include an itemized list of each one.
  • Provide evidence: It’s not enough to just say there’s a mistake; you should substantiate your claim with proof. Collect all documents related to the account, including account statements, letters, emails, and legal correspondence. Include copies (never originals) of this paperwork and highlight or circle the relevant information.
  • Contact credit providers: In addition to the credit bureaus, the CFPB recommends you also contact the credit providers that supplied the incorrect information to the bureaus. Check with the company to learn how to file a dispute, and then send it the same documentation to them that you sent to the bureaus.
  • Review the results of the investigation: Credit bureaus typically get back to you within a month, but their response can take up to 45 days. The response will tell you if the disputed item was deleted, fixed, or remains the same. Disputes basically boil down to whether or not the creditor agrees with your claim, and what they say typically goes.

If you’re not happy with the result of the dispute or how the dispute was handled, you can file a complaint with the CFPB, which regulates the credit bureaus. They’ll forward your complaint to the credit provider and update you on the response they receive. If the credit provider insists the information is accurate, you can provide the bureaus with a statement summarizing your dispute and request they include it in your file, in future reports, and to anyone who received a copy of the old report in the recent past.

Legal action
Finally, if the investigation isn’t resolved to your satisfaction and the inaccurate information in your credit report is causing you harm, contact us to determine if taking legal action would be worthwhile. We can review the information, and if necessary, help you develop and litigate your case.

With us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can help get your credit in top shape by guiding you to put the proper legal, insurance, financial, and tax systems in place to secure your family’s financial future. Contact us today to get started.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t 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 $750 session at no charge.

Use Estate Planning to Enrich Your Family With More Than Just Material Wealth

In the weeks before her death from ovarian cancer, author Amy Krouse Rosenthal gave her husband Jason one of the most treasured gifts a person could receive. 

She penned the touching essay “You May Want to Marry My Husband” in the New York Times as a final love letter to him. The essay took the form of a heart-wrenching yet-humorous dating profile that encouraged him to begin dating again once she was gone. In her opening description of Jason, she writes: “He is an easy man to fall in love with. I did it in one day.”

What followed was an intimate list of attributes and anecdotes, highlighting what she loved most about Jason. It reads like a love story, encompassing 26 years of marriage, three grown children, and a bond that will last forever. She finished the essay on Valentine’s Day, concluding with:

“The most genuine, non-vase-oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins.”

Just 10 days after the essay was published in March 2017, Amy died at age 51.

Finding meaning again
Amy’s essay immediately went viral, and Jason received countless letters from women across the globe. Although he has yet to begin a new relationship, Jason said the outpouring of letters gave him “solace and even laughter” in the darkest days following his wife’s death.

Just over a year later, Jason wrote his own essay for the Times, “My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me,” in which he expressed how grateful he was for Amy’s words and recounted the lessons he’d learned about loss and grief since her passing.

He said his wife’s parting gift “continues to open doors for me, to affect my choices, to send me off into the world to make the most of it.” Jason has since given a TED Talk on his grieving process in hopes of helping others deal with loss, something he said he never would’ve done without Amy’s motivation.

Toward the end of his essay, Jason gave readers a bit of advice for how they can provide their loved ones with a similar gift:  “Talk with your mate, your children, and other loved ones about what you want for them when you are gone,” he wrote. “By doing this, you give them liberty to live a full life and eventually find meaning again.”

Preserving your intangible assets
This moving story highlights what could be the most valuable, yet often-overlooked aspect of estate planning. Planning isn’t just about preserving and passing on your financial wealth and property in the event of your death or incapacity. When done right, it equates to sharing your family’s stories, values, life lessons, and experiences, so your legacy carries on long after you are gone.

Indeed, as the Rosenthals demonstrate, these intangible assets can be among the most profound gifts you can give. Of course, not everyone has the talent or time to write a similarly moving essay or have it published in the New York Times, nor is that necessary.

We recognize the enormous value these assets represent, along with the inherent challenge of documenting our life experiences. Given this, in our estate plans, we’ve built in a process, known as Family Wealth Legacy Passages, for preserving and passing on your unique treasures and gifts.

Family Wealth Legacy Passages
Our Family Wealth Legacy Passages (included in all of our estate plans) guide you to create a customized recording in which you share your most insightful memories and life lessons with those you leave behind.

We’ve developed a series of helpful questions and prompts to make the process of sharing your life experiences not only easy, but enjoyable. And this isn’t something you have to do on your own—which you know you wouldn’t get around to—as we do it with you as an integral part of your planning services.

In the end, your family’s most precious wealth is not money, but the memories you make, the values you instill, and the lessons you hand down. And left to chance, these assets are likely to be lost forever.

If you want to pass down a truly meaningful legacy, one that can provide the kind of inspiration Amy’s letter did for Jason, contact us as your Personal Family Lawyer®. Our customized estate planning services will preserve and pass on not only your financial wealth, but your most treasured family values as well. Start by scheduling a Family Wealth Planning Session, where we’ll discuss what kind of assets you have, what matters most to you, and what you want to leave behind.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t 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 $750 session at no charge.

3 Deadly Sins of Retirement Planning

Retirement planning is one of life’s most important financial goals. Indeed, funding retirement is one of the primary reasons many people put money aside in the first place. Yet many of us put more effort into planning for our vacations than we do to prepare for a time when we may no longer earn an income.

Whether you’ve put off planning for retirement altogether or failed to create a truly comprehensive plan, you’re putting yourself at risk for a future of poverty, penny pinching, and dependence. The stakes could hardly be higher. When preparing for your final years, it’s not enough to simply hope for the best. You should treat retirement planning as if your life depended on it—because it does. To this end, even well-thought-out plans can contain fatal flaws you might not be aware of until it’s too late.

Have you committed any of the following three deadly sins of retirement planning? 


Not having an actual plan
Even if you’ve been diligent about saving for retirement, without a detailed, goal-oriented plan, you’ll have no clear idea whether your savings strategies are working adequately or not. And such plans aren’t just about calculating a retirement savings number, funding your 401(k), and then setting things on auto-pilot.  Once you know how much you’ll need for retirement, you have to plan for exactly how you’ll accumulate that money and monitor your success. The plan should include clear-cut methods for increasing income, reducing spending, maximizing tax savings, and managing investments when and where needed. What’s more, you should regularly review and update your asset allocation, investment performance, and savings goals to ensure you’re still on track to hit your target figure. With each new decade of your life (at least), you should adjust your savings strategies to match the specific needs of your new income level and age. The plan should also take into consideration unforeseen contingencies, such as downturns in the economy, health emergencies, layoffs, and inflation. Failing to plan, as they say, is planning to fail.

 

Not maximizing the use of tax-saving retirement accounts
One way or another, the money you put aside for retirement is going to be taxed. However, by investing in tax-saving retirement accounts, you can significantly reduce the amount of taxes you’ll pay. Depending on your employment and financial situation, there are numerous different plans available. From traditional IRAs and 401(k)s to Roth IRAs and SEP Plans, you should consider using one or more of these investment vehicles to ensure you achieve the most tax savings possible.  What’s more, many employers will match your contributions to these accounts, which is basically free money. If your employer offers matching funds, you should not only use these accounts, but contribute the maximum amount allowed—and do so as early as possible. Since figuring out which of these plans will offer the most tax savings can be tricky—and because tax laws are constantly changing—you should consult with us and a professional financial advisor to find the one(s) best suited for your particular situation. Paying taxes is unavoidable, but there’s no reason you should pay any more than you absolutely have to.

Underestimating health-care costs
One of the most frequent mistakes people make when planning for retirement is assuming that things will always stay the same. Whether it’s tax laws, inflation, market conditions, or marital status, if you don’t carefully consider how your circumstances might change with time, you’re putting yourself and your savings at serious risk. While many such contingencies are mere possibilities, the one thing that’s certain to change with time is your body and mind. It’s an inescapable fact that our health naturally declines with age, so one of the riskiest things you can do is not plan for increased health-care expenses. With many employers eliminating retiree health-care coverage, Medicare premiums rising, and the extremely volatile nature of health insurance law, planning for your future health-care expenses is critical. It’s even more important seeing that we’re now living longer than ever before. Plus, these considerations are assuming that you don’t fall victim to a catastrophic illness or accident. The natural aging process is expensive enough to manage, but a serious health-care emergency can wipe out even the most financially well off.

But with so many unknowns, how can you possibly prepare for every possible scenario?
The truth is, you can’t. That said, you should take advantage of every available precaution within your means. This might mean delaying retirement, purchasing supplemental insurance, investing in long-term care insurance, opening a Health Savings Account, or some combination of these options. We can advise you on precautions that are right for you and your family.

Start preparing for retirement now
The best way to maximize your retirement funding is to start planning (and saving) as soon as possible. In fact, your retirement savings can be exponentially increased simply by starting to plan at an early age.

No matter your age, income, or asset value, with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can help you put the legal, insurance, financial, and tax systems (LIFT) in place to ensure you’re prepared for a thriving future. Contact us to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session today to get started. We’ll review what you have in place now, what you need, introduce you to advisors you can trust, and ensure you and your family are well-protected and planned for, no matter what.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t 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 $750 session at no charge.