Thursday, July 23, 2009

Online Passwords and Estate Planning

Estate planning for online passwords:
If you're smart about your online life, you've created strong and varied passwords for all your accounts. You change those passwords often. And you never write them down or share them with anyone.

That's all well and good while you're alive. But your admirable devotion to protecting sensitive personal data can wreak havoc for your heirs after you die.

With an increasing portion of our personal lives stored online in password-restricted accounts -- including bank accounts, automatic bill-pay arrangements, personal messages and even items with small monetary but major sentimental value, such as photos -- piecing together an estate after a death can cause major headaches.

For example, if you have an online savings account separate from your regular bank account and the statement notifications are only emailed, not mailed, that account may get overlooked when your finances are disbursed to beneficiaries.

"We spend hours or days trying to track down the information," said Hyman Darling, an attorney with Bacon Wilson in Springfield, Mass., and chairman of that firm's estate-planning department. "Very often things don't come in the mail and we wouldn't know about [the account] for some time."

Of course, creating a will detailing your assets can help, but a will doesn't solve everything. "Even when people remember to leave a list of financial accounts with their other important papers for the next of kin, they often forget account passwords," said Michael Palermo, a Lexington, Ky., attorney who specializes in estate planning.

Without log-in information, survivors usually need to go to court for legal authority to gain account access. The process varies from state to state; it doesn't always require a lawyer but it always takes time, Palermo said. Then, the surviving heir must get the company that runs the online account to heed her authority -- a task that's not always easy, Palermo said.

"Try contacting customer service and telling them, 'I've been appointed as my late brother's administrator. Please give me his user ID and password,' " he said. "Eventually, of course, this type of problem is solved when you can reach a real human being who doesn't act like this is the first customer ever to die. But these people have to be sought out within any institution I've ever dealt with."

The process can be even more complicated if someone is incapacitated rather than dies. "If there's no power of attorney, then we have to have a guardian or conservator appointed to have access to these records," Darling said. "Some companies won't give us information even if we have that, without a specific court order."

The costs of gathering the information can add up, Darling said. "It's unfortunate when they could just have put [the passwords] on a piece of paper or given it to someone they trusted."

The problem isn't limited to financial accounts -- heirs may want to save items with personal meaning, including messages in an online email account or photos stored on a site such as Kodak Gallery or Shutterfly.

Or, if you participate in a social-networking site such as Facebook or Twitter, you may want to exert some control over what happens to your profile after you die, but unless you leave your user name and password with a trusted person, it'll be tough for them to gain access.

What happens to your Facebook page if no one has that log-in information? A Facebook spokeswoman said via email that "if a family member alerts us that a loved one has died, we will place the profile in Memorial State, or take the profile down, based on their wishes." In memorial status, certain profile sections "are hidden from view to protect the privacy of the departed." She added: "We will not give access to the person's account."

While some people might be happy their relatives can't get access to their email or other accounts, others are taking matters into their own hands. "I had a young man in his 20s in here a couple of months ago to sign off on his will and he had some specific instructions about Facebook," said Patricia H. Char, a Seattle attorney with K&L Gates. "These are issues for this generation." ....
Full article: Don't Take Your Passwords to the Grave: Neglecting to share details of online accounts will cost your heirs time, money by Andrea Coombes, CBS Marketwatch via Yahoo! Finance, July 23, 2009

Friday, July 10, 2009

California FTB LLC Fee Refunds and Case Updates

Claims are due this summer for certain claims for refunds of LLC fees (above the $800 per year minimum franchise tax) paid to the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) for tax years prior to January 1, 2007, for LLCs that had operations in multiple states. This is related to several lawsuits contending the LLC fee is unconstutional, two of which have been resolved, in favor of the limited liability company-taxpayers (Ventas Finance I, LLC v. Franchise Tax Board and Northwest Energetic Services, LLC v. Franchise Tax Board). In Ventas, the court found that Revenue & Taxation Code Section 17942 was unconstitutional as applied to an LLC which derived revenues from inside and outside of California, without apportioning the fee to account for in-state versus out-of-state source revenues. In Northwest, the court of appeals found unconstitutional California's LLC fee as applied to an LLC that registered with the state but never did any business in California (preumably, it had intended to, but circumstances changes, or it hadn't yet got around to doing business here).

The third case, Bakersfield Mall, LLC v. Franchise Tax Board, challenges the right of the FTB to levy the LLC fee on LLC's that do business entirely in California. Those with potential claims should review this notice and speak with their accountant about filing an appropriate and timely claim, or filing a protective claim:

FTB Notice 2009-04 dated 5/22/2009

Monday, July 6, 2009

Michael Jackson's Estate and Estate Planning (press item)

Recently quoted in the press on Michael Jackson's estate, will/trust, and creditor and child custody issues:
Though Michael Jackson’s body isn't in the ground yet, speculation is running rampant as to what will happen to his financial assets. Many suspect that legions of those only tangentially connected to the pop star are already sharpening their knives for their shares of the possible profits.

"There are a lot of dark characters that are going to try to make a buck out of this because Michael Jackson, unfortunately, is such a polarizing figure and his name is greater than any individual’s name on earth," said Aphrodite Jones, author of "The Michael Jackson Conspiracy."

"That being the case, everyone and anyone during his life tried to make money any way they could, and I don’t think that will end because of his death," Jones explains. "You think about Elvis Presley and all of the people who have made livings as impersonators and the Graceland tours, etc. — that’s nothing compared to what we’re going to see here."

As far as legal entitlements, Jackson's assets are undercut by the $400 million in debt that the pop star left behind.

Jonas M. Grant, an entertainment lawyer in Burbank, Calif., explains. "In general, creditors get the first crack at the contents of a deceased’s estate," he said.

Entertainment lawyer Jonas M. Grant says the mother of two of Jackson's children, Debbie Rowe, will likely get custody of those children and their inheritance. "[She] will benefit financially indirectly even if she is not named as a direct beneficiary of his estate, which she also may well be."
Vultures set to profit off of Jackson’s death: Skeptics say those who exploited him in life ready to strike again, Heidi Patalano, Metro International, June 29, 2009

Update: When quoted for the above news article, I didn't have the benefit of reviewing Michael Jackson's purported last will, which can be seen below, and is a pour-over will, essentially directing that all of his property not already titled to the "Michael Jackson Family Trust" be added to that trust, for distribution to the beneficiaries named in that trust:

Michael Jackson's Will - full screen (new window)