Why The One Who Dies With The Most Toys Wins in a Sci-Fi Kind of Way
Nearly 8,000 people die in the US every day. Couple that with 4.7 million global internet users--4.3 billion on social media--and you have millions of people with digital assets in swelling financial portfolios. These assets needs to go somewhere upon death.
Although I couldn’t find a statistic with how many people have digital accounts worldwide, I found that the global digital asset management market is set to grow from $1.24 billion (2018) to $6.9 billion by 2024.
If you think about it, business plans ensure exclusivity in their digital content with colossal words in complex contracts to retain their rights and future use. Consumers devour digital content daily and invest a significant sum in:
Bitcoin & digital currency
Digital collections such as baseball cards, Pokemon, Garbage Pail Kids, etc
We also tend to embed some vital content online--including items of sentimental and monetary value such as:
Pictures & Videos
Stories & Articles
PayPal, Venmo, etc.
Email & Social Accounts
Vital Records, Medical Information, etc.
Our society is fully immersed in the digital world. In recognition of that fact, nearly all 50 states codified laws that provide families the right to access and manage some of the deceased’s digital assets. Some. Digital estate planning has exploded and is in high demand to protect and secure valuable digital and physical assets to be passed to family members.
But, what if there is no family member--what if you need a professional executor? Where does all your stuff go? How do you plan all the meticulous details of your passing? How do you keep the plan updated and relevant? What if the person you selected as executor dies before you do? These were the questions that swirled in my head when I was exposed to the ‘worst-case scenario’ with the movie I Care A lot. My first question being, “Is that a thing?”
Guardianship--It’s A Thing
[Photo Courtesy of Netflix]
Meet Marla Grayson, the lead in I Care A lot. Her well-rehearsed, compassionate smile is a stunning veil that conceals the megalomaniacal tendencies and sharpness of her bite. The stylish, sophisticated, clever vixen dances with ease in the gray areas of elder law and questionable moral fiber. I loved her from one of the very first lines:
“Playing fair is a joke invented by rich people to keep the rest of us poor.”
And I loved to hate her shortly after. I Care A lot is a dark comedy film by J Blakeson that takes us on a journey of corruption, insidious acts, complex coordinated atrocities, and the proficiency in which a court-appointed guardian carries out these affronts on the elderly--enter our little powerhouse, Marla.
First, I thought, this guardian thing can’t be a thing. Scratch that, let’s be honest. I thought I could so totally dominate in this business space (c’mon, if you watched it, I know you thought it too--the seduction of a quick buck is powerful).
The disturbing thing about the movie is they made it seem so, well, EASY. Then the horrifying thing was, in reality, it IS EASY. At least the process is. The mental game---I don’t possess that type of grit or maliciousness no matter what the voices in my head say.
To understand the diabolical schemes that can be hatched and protect yourself and your family, a review of some terminology is in order.
The Trilogy Of Power In Estate Planning
When we plan for our death (usually when driving in rush hour), we generally have a list of wishes we want to be carried out by family members or those we trust. We also usually document these wishes by way of estate planning.
Estate planning isn’t as rich as it sounds; it’s not like we are all Rockefellers. It simply means making arrangements while you are alive for the management and distribution of your ‘estate' after you die.
Estate is a loose term for digital assets, furniture, children, and pets, basically everything you leave behind. What will be done to care for you if you are mentally or physically unable to care for yourself?
With my kids, this is a valid concern. I am positive one of them would off me right now if there was a profit in it. Another is eyeballing my baseball card collection. The family cat tries to kill me daily as I carry laundry down the stairs--survival of the fittest in my house.
These maniacal plots keep my life exciting (and in constant peril). Because of that, I have assigned my oldest son as my Executor with explicitly detailed plans.
Definitions are essential when creating an estate plan. Especially if you are creating one and have no family members to name, so, it is of profound importance to know what you are assigning or what could be assigned to you:
When you think of guardianship, you generally think of someone who will be looking after your children should you become incapacitated or die. Guardians may or may not have access to your finances.
You can also choose to compensate them for their services, which would ultimately help them care for your children. A guardian can also be appointed by the court, as Marla was.
In the case that you are unable to take care of yourself and there is no one to speak on your behalf (or unassigned in the role of guardian), you may become a ward of the court.
The court will assign a guardian to your case to make decisions regarding healthcare. Usually, court-appointed guardians do not make financial decisions--conservators do. Marla was both (BOOM).
The court also appoints conservators if you are a ward of the court and unable to make financial decisions. One of the most popularized cases of conservatorship was the case of Britney Spears.
Her father asked the court to be appointed as a temporary conservator after Britney had several public breakdowns. The judge granted her father control over her $59 million fortune and her life in 2008.
The controversy of the lengthy conservatorship sparred a Free Britney Movement and a Hulu documentary. The temporary conservatorship lasted 13 years after being extended several times and endured several lawsuits as Britney fought for financial independence.
Trustees are akin to conservators. The difference is you assign the trustee in estate planning. This person makes the financial decisions and is entrusted to carry out your wishes.
A trustee’s position usually lasts longer than the executor’s, depending upon the amount of wealth you have accumulated and how it is disbursed. Because of the length in position, a backup trustee is a good idea in the event of the original trustee’s demise.
For example, the surviving spouse is usually the trustee. If the surviving spouse is in the winter of their life, one of the children could serve as a backup trustee.
Being a trustee comes with the fiduciary duty of keeping the Trust saturated in financial wellness vs. financial ruin. For example, Michael Jackson would have been a poor choice of trustee, seeing how he was $400 million in debt at his death, which was a shock to his selected trustee. The trustee is the ultimate decision-maker and responsible for settling the estate.
The executor is like a 911 dispatcher that steps into a state of emergency, assesses the situation, collects data, and assumes control amid chaos. Executors tend to the estate’s immediate needs such as cash flow, insurance policies, funeral preparations, inventory, and assists the trustee in distributing assets.
Executors act in a supporting role to the trustee. The trustee is a long-term commitment, while the executor is first on the scene to secure assets and tend to things that have a sense of urgency. Executors tend to be local and accessible for these emergencies.
What Is The Significance Of These Roles?
Assigning these roles to people of your choice when you are of sound mind and very much alive ensures you avoid court appointments and do not set yourself up to be a victim.
I am not saying all court appointments of guardians or conservators lead to corruption. I am saying the odds of you living in squalor while someone takes advantage of your well-earned life are significantly reduced.
Ensuring you have a hierarchy of people, such as naming a spouse, sister, and attorney as your trustees to succeed one another (or work by committee) until your children are of age, is a best practice to protect your legacy and keep generational wealth in-house.
One person can successfully fill all three roles. If you don’t assign any party, the court can and will assign someone for you. This can be dangerous if someone becomes a predatory interested party--interested party by way of your assets, like our sweet Marla.
Get A Whole New Life
For the sake of explanation, let’s break this down with a story. You see an elderly neighbor cautiously back out of his driveway in an Aston Martin. His face beaming with pride as he waves at you and turns to wax the chestnut beauty.
You turn your gaze to the neon green Pinto in your driveway--the concession for buying the beautiful home you live in. You could afford one luxury, not both. You add a little more rum to your coffee to kill the pain that’s caused by coveting thy neighbor’s goods and go about your day.
For five years, that is your morning ritual, until one day, as fate would have it, things change. Your widowed, childless, Aston Martin-toting neighbor starts backing out his car. Unfortunately, he misjudges his luxury loafer placement on the brake and veers into your yard, hitting your Pinto.
You pause I Care A lot on Netflix (watching it for the 5th time today, also your daily ritual for the past five years) and suddenly find yourself in a moral dilemma. Luckily, rum does a fine job of dispelling moral dilemmas as well. You grab your phone and head outside to see if your neighbor is OK and get some choice recording.
Your neighbor is a bit dazed after hitting his head on the steering wheel and is chanting somewhat incoherently; I don’t know what happened. Where am I? What did I hit? I don’t know what happened.
You promptly record the incident, help limp the Aston Martin back into the neighbor’s driveway and drive the neighbor to the nearest Urgent Care. The doctor asks if this has ever happened before, and the authoritative voice that you respond with surprises you; Why, yes, yes it does.
To your surprise, the neighbor bobs his head in agreement to support your statement. The doctor gives you a knowing glance and nods his head as he scribbles notes on his pad as you burn his name into your memory. You drop the neighbor back home and head straight for your computer, followed by a shot of rum.
Lady Luck has placed your residence in Iowa. Iowa does not require licensing to be a State Conservator. Even if it did, Conservator licensing is not particularly difficult to come by.
[Courtesy of Guardianshipcert.org]
Licensing varies from state to state, and a majority of states require no licensing, as seen above. Some require belonging to a professional organization and forgo the licensing. California requires a Professional Fiduciary license which isn’t as imposing as it sounds.
The National Guardianship Association offers a certification program through the Center of Guardianship Association. Or, you can opt to take the courses offered by the Professional Fiduciary Association of California.
The Times revealed that New York has a one-day certification course to achieve professional guardian standing--with no pesky background checks.
For more in-depth training, Cal-Fullerton offers an online certification program that takes just six months at an inexpensive cost considering what you will be making--upwards of $88,000 for 6-months or 30 credit hours of your life.
A few mouse clicks, and you are in. The next six months are sifted between your computer and building confidence and trust with your neighbor, and referring injuries around the neighborhood to the Urgent Care Doctor with who you have created a rapport.
On graduation day, your neighbor comes to your backyard party and brings the cake. As a precautionary measure, he signs off on you being the trustee of his estate. BOOM.
You now have experience under your belt to be recommended as a court-appointed conservator and a doctor with a knowing sympathy nod. Conservators and Trustees can charge extensive fees for their select services. See how this works?
If you think I’m kidding or exaggerating, my state of Nevada had a comparable; I Care A lot moment.
What Happened In Vegas, Didn’t Stay In Vegas
April Parks was a Nevada legal guardian to approximately 400 wards. Over 12 years, Parks systematically stole their civil rights and their assets. One of the more publicized cases was that of Rudy and Rennie North.
Parks hastily drove her car to the Norths’ home sporting a license plate which showcased CRTGRDN (Court Guardian). She briskly presented the 70-year-old couple with a court order while instructing her colleagues to remove the stunned occupants from their home and transport them to a nursing home.
This is a hell of a first meeting. You see, Parks had filed an emergency ex-parte petition on the North couple claiming:
“Substantial risk for mismanagement of medications, financial loss, and physical harm and suffered from dementia.”
The Norths were unaware of this court hearing as their presence, and notification was not required. Parks had secured a physician assistant’s letter, which was deemed as irrefutable proof of the matter. Mind you, Rennie North had visited the physician’s assistant ONE TIME. Yet, the court agreed once was enough and granted the order.
The Norths had not put an estate plan in place; had they, it would not have taken three days for their daughter Julie to discover what had happened to her parents. Initially, she had thought her parents were kidnapped.
Within that three days, Parks had gone through the house, connected with a company that specialized in estate sales, and collected all the data she needed. She contracted with another company to sell most of the belongings, including Renoir lithographs that alone valued $38,000.
The Norths were not a single case of victimization. There were ten victims in the same nursing home, but Parks had gone national, leaving penniless victims across the country hidden away in nursing homes. The time it took to destroy their lives, 2 minutes in court.
Parks had created a type of LinkedIn network composed of hospital social workers and medical staff that presented viable leads. Parks even went so far as to send out an APB on the network and cold-calling rehabilitation centers for a 79-year-old woman who had $700k in the bank and no children.
While authorities were untangling the network, the victims remained in nursing homes as their wealth diminished because guardianship in the eyes of the law is a death do us part scenario.
Remember, the victims did not have the authority to hire an attorney because they were incapable of making decisions. Thus, Park was able to create havoc while her victims were overmedicated to prevent trouble. Ironically, Parks was brought down much like Capone.
Guardians can shield themselves from accountability in heavy-handed legal documents. Parks was halted with perjury and double-dealing in her accounting (charging each ward $100 to deliver unsolicited gifts of cheap socks for Christmas) and elderly exploitation.
In 2018, Parks pled guilty to six felony charges and was sentenced to 16-40 years in prison. Parks just skims the surface of corruption. According to the National Center for State Courts, there are between 1-3 million adults in forced guardianships.
This is the best guess as court documents are usually sealed, and there are no reporting standards or public record-keeping measures. The Government Accountability (note the irony) Office revealed:
“[They] Could not locate a single website, federal agency, state or local entity, or any other organization that companies comprehensive information on the issue.”
The best practice is not to pull a seat to that table and protect yourself with an estate plan.
How Not To Be A Victim
When you say estate planning attorney, people’s buttholes pucker while images of burning hundred dollar bills cascade in their minds. If you have been reading my blogs, you know I am a sucker for the alternatives (code for cheap, effective, and impactful).
In a previous blog, “Top 3 Ways to Become Immortal and Other Cool Stuff You Can Do With A Dead Body”, I illustrated alternatives to traditional funerals and burials.
So, the answer is a resounding YES; there is a way to put estate planning firmly in your control without costing a bundle! I should disclose, I am not an attorney, and you should seek legal advice.
Executor.org is an exquisite bit of business that allows you to store all of the vital information your chosen people need to unlock your legacy. The best news, it is free to create your comprehensive plan. Why, you may ask? I nabbed this from their website:
The cost for the program (which is nominal compared to the service provided) will be taken from the estate upon your death. The site is easily navigated and offers detailed information through the process and beyond:
Including an excellent article: 8 tips for planning your estate. There is an overwhelming amount of relevant advice and information for both you and your chosen executor(s). The cool thing about this is you can advise ‘your people’ about your progress and share the Executor.org account information with them.
The plan should be blessed and a copy provided to a competent, experienced attorney; however, doing this process yourself saves mucho bucks. The fact it is online also makes it easier to keep information and contacts updated if a family reunion goes awry.
If you are looking for something a little more robust on a friendly budget, EstateExec.com is your answer. You can purchase a license for the online software at $99 (one-time) for a 5-year term which can be extended. The good news, there is a 10-day free trial so that you can compare this software with Executor.org.
This online solution compares itself to Quicken, except optimized for estate settlement. There are excellent resource guides, task lists, financial statements and calculates executor compensation.
EstateExec.com also provides money-saving coupons for an arsenal of third-party services. This can save you hundreds, including the money you will save in attorney hours to bless the plan and house a copy.
Letter of Testamentary
It is crucial to ensure that an attorney is included in your contacts on whatever program you utilize because a Letter of Testamentary or a Letter of Administration will need to be obtained by the executor (the only person that can obtain this letter).
The Letter of Testamentary is legal evidence of your appointment as executor that can be provided to the world. The letter gives you the authority to start acting as the executor and fulfilling your role.
The letter is usually obtained by providing the deceased’s Last Will & Testament and death certificate to the probate officer or court. I use RocketLawyer.com for a ton of documents and was able to pull up a sample:
The probate officer or court probably has the form, but this gives you an idea of what the letter will look like. It is of paramount importance that you obtain several official copies of this letter. You will be providing it to banks and various other entities.
If assets are owned in several different states, you will likely have to repeat the process in each state with a probate officer or court. Each state would have its Letter of Testamentary. This will allow you to access all of the assets, including the digital ones.
The Digital Asset Estate Plan
Digital assets include any online record that you own. This can be anything held online, from content (like this blog) to reward programs. Digital assets are today’s family quilt passed down to each generation.
Digital asset protection has been tremendous to industry leaders, but consumers are catching up fast, especially with multiple revenue streams from online sources housed in cloud-based systems.
Digital Asset Estate Plans should carve out appropriate wording for digital assets. A blanket of Executor ‘authority’ may not be adequate, and the best practice is to note the digital assets in the legal documents explicitly. Do not include passwords; Wills are public documents.
Appropriateness is also something to consider. Authority to access all of your digital assets may not be relevant and can cause a family scandal. Thanksgiving dinner conversation will never be the same if Uncle Frank is provided access to your pornhub collection.
It is vital to recognize what you actually own in the digital world vs. what you were renting.
Owning or Renting?
I recently posted a blog, “Digital Card Collections, Movie Libraries & Music: Is This A Rental?” I explored what you own and what you don’t--it was enlightening. In my research, I found:
“DRM (Digital Records Management) serves as a digital lock on content that doesn’t allow people to share files with others (piracy), and it can be used to protect copyrights in intellectual property (you own nothing)...Make sure that you are reviewing DRM disclosures, usually under terms and conditions, for any music, game, Ebook, movie, or any other digital content you purchase.”
In most cases, you may have thought you purchased a digital asset, but in reality, you bought a non-transferable license to use it. Such was the case with the items in my blog.
Once you have looked at the disclosure statements to see what you actually own (and have had that needed swig of rum to mourn what you don’t own), you will want to include these in your digital estate plan:
Financial Accounts: Banks, digital payment systems (PayPal, Zelle, Bitcoin, online betting)
Online Reward Programs: Cashback discounts, points, customer reward programs, monetized channels that create revenue, etc.
Digital Collections: Photographs, videos, music files, etc. (mostly sentimental value--think digital family quilt); and the last section
Electronic Communications: Social Media
The Social Media Legacy
We live and breathe social media. The average person has, at a minimum, five social media accounts. I fondly refer to social media as social currency. Having a password manager or storing passwords in your digital estate plan software will ensure your death entourage will carry out your final plans and have easy access to the accounts.
Some accounts are more significant than others, so think about which accounts are vital for you to share and which subscriptions should be canceled to retain funds in your bank account to be used for your estate.
The big boys in social media are:
Google: Google provides several services from Gmail to YouTube. To identify all of the services being used, you can visit myaccount.google.com after login. Google does have an inactive account manager option and a trusted contact option.
FaceBook: FaceBook has raised the bar on dead accounts (sorry, I had to). The account remains visible with a ‘Remembering’ badge on the profile in memorium of the deceased.
Friends and family can add comments. You can appoint a Legacy Account. The person you designate can update the main photo and respond to the comments. DM cannot be accessed.
Amazon: If you have built a library that would be the envy of the National Library of Congress, you may want to keep the account alive by having someone take it over. You can also remove the payment options and keep it dormant, which will allow your family to access the purchases.
Apple: Who doesn’t have an Apple product these days? Apple’s universe includes:
Apple Music, etc., etc.
Your iEmpire trustee will need the username, password, and associated email account (for each account you have). It is a best practice to leave the code to your phone, too, with the ingenious innovation of two-factor authentication.
Microsoft: Microsoft is another empire in and of itself with:
LinkedIn, etc., etc.
The Microsoft ID is the key to the kingdom. If you pay for any subscriptions (such as LinkedIn Premium), you will want to cancel it or take the payments over by changing the email and payment options.
The Sci-Fi I Promised
[Photo courtesy of Amazon]
Welcome to Upload. Upload is a series in which humans can upload themselves into a virtual afterlife that they choose. It is similar to cryogenics, except you are virtually alive, waiting for the reincarnation of sorts. Because you are virtual, you can interact with the living (on all levels, ooohh-la-la).
You can either designate funds to pay for your Upload afterlife, or a family member can bear the expense. In the series, Nathan (captioned above) dies prematurely and finds himself in the exclusive, luxurious Lake View afterlife. The small caveat is that his living girlfriend made the arrangements and pays the bills.
What a sweet girl, right? Well, when he attends his funeral, virtual attendance, his girlfriend proves to be the center of attention, with him being left as an honorable mention. It’s a fantastic series worth a watch. In my mind, this is where society is headed, and digital estate planning is our ticket to Lake View. Be vigilant! And be damn careful who you assign as your digital executor. At the very least, keep excellent records in a safe place.
Paperwork can be drawn up and effectively lost. Storing important information online has become the new norm and much more convenient and practical for surviving family.
Below is a list of some online record-keeping programs that will help you keep your affairs to let your last wishes be known or keep the digital family quilt:
Each site has its specialty, policies, and practices that help you create the memorable post-world you for your family.
The best way to not play the part of a victim is not to set yourself up to be a victim. Keep your legacy and well-being within your control with the simple tools illustrated here. The last thing you want is a stranger benefiting from your years of hard work and perseverance. I only scratched the surface for death preppers. To learn more, I suggest: