New Digital Asset Law Passes in Pennsylvania

The new PA digital asset law highlights the need to plan for your loved ones to have access to your digital assets after you pass.

More and more of our lives are lived online. We bank online, use email for everything, have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram accounts, keep photos on the cloud and have usernames and passwords for virtually every part of our online presence.  All of these things could be considered digital asset examples. However, what happens when we become disabled or die and our executor or a fiduciary needs to access these digital assets? Pennsylvania recently joined many states that have passed a law intended to make accessing these accounts easier, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the article “New Pa. law recognizes digital assets in estates.”

The official name of the law is the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, or RUFADAA. Pennsylvania is one of the last states in the nation—48th—to adopt this type of legislation, with the passage of Act 72 of 2020 (FYI Texas readers, the Texas legislature passed the Texas Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (TRUFADAA) in 2017). Until now, Pennsylvania didn’t allow concrete authority to access digital information to fiduciaries. The problem: the ability to access the information is still subject to the agreement that the user has with the online provider. That’s the “yes” we give automatically when presented with a software terms of service agreement.

Online service providers give deference to “legacy” contacts that a user can name if authority to a third party to access their accounts is given. However, most people don’t name a successor to have access or the successor is unaware of it, and most apps don’t have a way to do this.  I just this week received my first prompt from Facebook to name a legacy successor contact, and if Facebook is just starting that process, you can assume most other apps are far behind.

These laws are necessary because administering an estate with digital assets presents unique challenges.  With digital assets, first you have to locate the person’s digital assets (and chances are good you’ll miss a few). There’s no shoebox of old receipts, or letters and bills coming in the mail to identify digital property. The custodians of the online information (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Google, etc.) still rely on those contracts between the user and the digital platform.

Under the digital asset law, if the user does not make use of the online tool to name a successor, or if one is not offered, then the user can dictate the terms of access or non-access to the online accounts through estate planning documents, including a will, trust or power of attorney.  Most quality estate planning attorneys have included access to such assets in the documents they prepare, and we certainly do.

Here are some tips to help administer your digital assets:

Make a list of all your online accounts, their URL address, usernames and passwords. Share the list only with someone you trust. You will be surprised at just how many you have.  I did this a few years ago and was surprised to find it covered four pages.  You should also consider recording login information to your devices where you might store information.  Often people don’t keep paper records, so you can look for information on laptops, phones and similar devices.  Our estate planning binders actually provide a section to do exactly this.

Review the terms of service for each account to see if you have the ability to provide a name for a person who is authorized to access the account on your behalf, such as the Facebook example I provided.

Make sure your estate planning documents are aligned with your service contract preferences. Does your Power of Attorney mention access to your digital accounts? Depending on the potential value, sentimental and otherwise, of your digital assets, you may need to revise your estate plan.  This is especially true as our lives are likely to become even more digital in the future.

If you are interested in learning more on this topic, especially the practical components, Mary Galligan did an excellent article on this topic you can find here.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/does-your-estate-planning-include-your-online-account-passwords/

Remember to never put specific private information in your estate plan such as account numbers, URLs, usernames or passwords, since your will becomes a public document once it is probated and your other documents may be shared as well. Your estate planning attorney will know how to best accomplish documenting your digital assets, while enabling access to them for your fiduciaries.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Aug. 24, 2020) “New Pa. law recognizes digital assets in estates.”

Continue Reading New Digital Asset Law Passes in Pennsylvania

Covid 19 and Minor Children – Things to Consider Now

It's important to have a plan in place to take care of your minor children, if you are unable to do so yourself.
It’s important to have a plan in place to take care of your minor children, if you are unable to do so yourself.

Protecting your family is important, especially when you have minor children, and even more so now that we are living through a pandemic. With all of the unknowns of our current situation, you need some certainty. Having an up-to-date estate plan can be the first step toward providing that certainty in an uncertain world.

Many people view estate planning as limited to making arrangements for your death. However, it is equally important to plan for a time when you may still be alive but unable to care for yourself or your minor children.

Addressing the financial needs of you and your minor child

A revocable living trust can be a great solution for managing your and your minor child’s financial needs during incapacity. This planning tool enables you to name yourself as the trustee (the person or institution charged with managing, investing, and handing out the money and property) and allows you to continue exercising control over the money and property you transferred to the trust. The accounts and property are transferred to the trust when you change the legal ownership from you as an individual to you as the trustee of the trust. A trust also allows you to name a co-trustee or an alternate trustee to seamlessly step in, without court involvement, and manage the trust’s money and property for your benefit and the benefit of any other beneficiaries you have named in your trust if you become too ill to do it yourself.

In addition, when using a trust, you can specify when and how the funds should be used for your minor child’s benefit. You can provide instructions for certain expenses to be paid during a period of incapacity to ensure that your minor child is still being provided for in the same way you would provide for your child. Additionally, you can include a plan for how the money will be used upon your death for your child’s benefit. You can also state a time frame for when you think your child would be ready to manage his or her inheritance. Until the child reaches that age, the child’s inheritance will be managed by the trustee you choose. It’s important that you provide your child’s trustee with guidelines on what is important to you in terms of taking care of your child financially. If you leave your child’s inheritance to your child in a trust, the funds will be better protected from any future creditors or a divorcing spouse that your child may have.

An added benefit of utilizing a trust as part of your estate plan is avoiding the time-consuming and often expensive probate process that would otherwise be required. As long as you properly transfer your accounts and property to the trust, or make arrangements for the trust to be named beneficiary of your assets at your death, you will save your loved ones precious time and money during an emotional period.

Caring for your minor child

When planning for minor children, it is also important to consider who will physically care for them if you are unable to. If your minor child’s other legal parent is still alive and able to care for the child, the other parent will continue to provide care or will assume the day-to-day responsibilities of the caregiver. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to plan for what will happen if both of you are unable to care for the minor child, just in case. If you are the only living parent, or if the other legal parent is unfit to care for your child, however, it is crucial that you make the proper arrangements. While most people are familiar with the idea of naming a guardian for a minor child in a last will and testament, this document does not become effective until your death. Therefore, to properly plan for your minor child’s care during your incapacity, you need to consider naming a guardian in a separate writing.

Providing for your minor child’s care and financial security is an important undertaking with many important questions to consider. An estate planning attorney can guide you in making those crucial decisions and can put together a plan that will see that your wishes are carried out.

Continue Reading Covid 19 and Minor Children – Things to Consider Now

How Grandparents Can Help Pay For College

Grandparents wanting to help pay for a grandchild's education may with to consider a 529 Plan.
Grandparents wanting to help pay for a grandchild’s education may with to consider a 529 Plan.

If you are a grandparent wondering how you can help pay for a grandchild’s future college education, you may wish to consider a Qualified Tuition Plan under IRC Section 529, otherwise known as a 529 plan.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Estate Planning Primer: Qualified Tuition Plans” explains that there are two kinds of 529 programs that can help pay for college (and some other education expenses): prepaid plans and savings plans. The earnings on the assets in the 529 plan aren’t taxed, until the funds are distributed. The distributions are also tax-free up to the amount of the student’s “qualified higher education expenses.”

One kind of 529 plan is known as a prepaid plan. With this plan you buy tuition credits at the current tuition rates, even though your grandchild may not be starting college for several years. Because the cost of a college education rises every year, there is a substantial benefit to being able to lock in the cost at today’s rate.

The other kind of 529 plan is a savings plan. Even though the earnings in the plan are tax deferred and, to the extent used for qualified higher education expenses, tax-free, the amount available to pay the college costs depends on the investment performance of the plan. The more the funds in the plan grow, the more education costs can be covered. But if the value of the plan declines, fewer education costs will be covered.

Qualified higher education expenses include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and required equipment. Reasonable room and board may be considered a qualified expense, if the student is enrolled at least half-time. Distributions of income from the 529 plan in excess of qualified expenses are taxed to the student, and may result in 10% penalty.

You would designate you grandchild as beneficiary of the 529 plan at the time you create it. However, you are able to change the beneficiary or roll over the funds in the plan to another plan for the same or a different beneficiary.

A 529 plan may be used to fund a grandchild’s education at any college, university, vocational school, or other post-secondary school eligible to participate in a student aid program of the Department of Education.

Any funds you contribute to the 529 plan will be treated as gifts to your grandchild; however they qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion ($15,000 per person per year for 2020) adjusted annually for inflation. If you contribute more than the annual exclusion amount in a given year, you can elect to have the gift treated as being made over a five-year period starting with the year of the contribution.

While you may name yourself as custodian of the 529 plan, it is important to also designate a successor custodian, perhaps a parent of a grandchild, in the event you are not able to act as custodian.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 5, 2020) “Estate Planning Primer: Qualified Tuition Plans”

Continue Reading How Grandparents Can Help Pay For College