Articles Posted in Estate Planning and Documents

Estate Planning with Digital Assets: Should I Give My Passwords to My Personal Representative (PR)?

Much of our access to information is protected by passwords. In the context of estate planning and probate, passwords can lead to expensive complications and third-party subpoenas. For this reason, an important aspect of modern estate planning is planning in such a way that fiduciaries will be able to access the financial and other electronic documents belonging to a decedent.

Florida law gives personal representatives and trustees certain powers with regard to accessing certain digital assets, but such powers are useless unless the fiduciary knows the passwords to access these accounts. Your passwords should not be in your will, as a will may become may be a public document, but you may want to consider maintaining a list, including log-in and password information, for all of your digital assets (including, for example: email accounts; electronic documents; software; internet sites; online user accounts; social media accounts; and electronic content, such as music or photography collections). A viable alternative may be programs or applications that safely store passwords. Some internet browsers have built-in password storage. If you use such programs, you must ensure that your fiduciaries know the master password that will allow them to see the other passwords.

Are Actions Taken Before Appointment as Personal Representative Valid? Yes, if the Actions Were Beneficial to the Estate

Florida law states that the duties and powers of a personal representative commence upon appointment. You may be named as personal representative in a decedent’s will, you are not legally considered a personal representative until the court appoints you. But what happens if you need to take action regarding an estate before a court officially appoints you as the personal representative of the estate, such as paying bills or filing a lawsuit? As it turns out, under the relation back doctrine, any act that you do on behalf of the estate becomes valid after you are appointed the personal representative, if such actions are beneficial to the estate. Florida courts have also clarified that performing the duties of a personal representative is considered beneficial to the estate.

Florida’s Relation Back Doctrine is found in Fla. Stat. § 733.601, which states, “The powers of a personal representative relate back in time to give acts by the person appointed, occurring before appointment and beneficial to the estate, the same effect as those occurring after appointment. A personal representative may ratify and accept acts on behalf of the estate done by others when the acts would have been proper for a personal representative.”

Is it a Gift or a Loan? Your intention matters for your Estate Planning

Have you ever given your child money to help them with school or a car or rent? How about loaning money to a friend? Is the intention to give a gift or a loan? How these transactions affect your estate planning may not be your first thought, but a good estate planner will take these transactions into account.

A transaction is a gift under section 2512(b) of the Code whenever there is a transfer for less than adequate and full consideration. If you never expect the other person to pay you back, then the transfer was a gift. At this stage it is important to remember that a gift should be properly reported on a gift tax return. Now what if you have made a large gift to one of your children during your lifetime, but you would like to treat your children equally upon your death? You may wish to acknowledge in your will or trust the gift you made to your child during your lifetime as an advancement of that child’s share. This would reduce your child’s share by that amount and give that same amount to your other children.

Avoiding Undue Influence, as an Adult Child, Assisting Parent’s Estate Planning

Writing a will is a process most people view as a terrible chore, but it is one that is necessary. The process may get further complicated when one spouse has already passed away and the adult children of the surviving elderly parent assist in managing and dividing finances. This has become more of a reality as more and more middle-aged children are caring for elderly parents. Perhaps, not surprisingly, this phenomenon is more pronounced in Florida, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau, leads the nation in terms of greatest share of its population aged 65 and older in 2010.

This scenario can lead to issues in estate planning especially if the parent is experiencing diminished mental capacity where too much of an adult child’s influence over estate planning decisions of the parent may bring legal problems such as legal charges of “undue influence.” Every state has its own undue influence laws to address these types of issues not only in the context of children’s undue influence on parents but others outside the family, such as a girlfriend or caretaker. In Florida, in order to raise a presumption of undue influence, a petitioner must show “(1) the existence of a confidential or fiduciary relationship between the decedent and the procurer of a will; (2) the active participation of the procurer in the planning and drafting of the will; and (3) the realization by the procurer of a substantial benefit under the provisions of the will.” These elements in Florida are found in common law as opposed to codified statutes so the court’s decision will be based on how convincing the evidence is in a case.

Seeking Paternity in Probate: Are You Out of Time?

When an estate enters probate and is being distributed, the distribution is usually between family members. Family members can include spouse, children from the marriage, parent, adopted child, aunt, cousin, etc. If there are issues or questions about the status of these individuals, they are usually litigated after the estate holder passes. But what if you are a child born out-of-wedlock? What status do you have and what rights do you have to the estate?

Under Fla. Stat. § 732.103, any children from the marriage are automatically deemed heirs of the estate, and entitled to a share of the intestate estate. But out-of-wedlock children have to establish paternity if they want to share in the distribution of the estate. But do these individuals have the opportunity to litigate the paternity after the father has passed? The opportunity is there, but it is subject to a statute of limitations under Fla. Stat. § 95.11(3)(b). The statute imposes a four year limitation for paternity actions generally, starting from the date the individual turns eighteen.

Fiduciary Exception for Attorney-Client Privilege is Extinct in Florida

If you are an attorney hired by a fiduciary, whether it be a trustee, a guardian, or a personal representative, you not only are working for the fiduciary, but you are also working for the best interests of the third party ward or beneficiary. However, can the beneficiary come forward and demand access to privileged communications between the fiduciary and the fiduciary’s attorneys? The “fiduciary exception” to the attorney-client privilege would allow beneficiaries to demand access, as long as the information is related to the normal administration issues of the trust or estate. Because the beneficiary is the intended third party beneficiary of the trust or estate, they are entitled to the information related to the trust or estate.

The original rule created confusion and uncertainty for fiduciaries and their attorneys, so Florida legislatively abolished the “fiduciary-exception” rule by adopting Fla. Stat. § 90.5021. Specifically § 90.5021(2) states that any communication between a lawyer and client acting as a fiduciary is privileged and protected to the same extent as if the client was not a fiduciary. However, there was still much litigation over this issue, and the Supreme Court of Florida on more than one occasion expressed concerns over its constitutionality. However, the Supreme Court of Florida finality resolved the issue in In re Amends. to Fla. Evidence Code, No. SC17-1005 (Fla .Jan. 25, 2018), in which it upheld the constitutionality of the statute.

Foreign Property, Divorce, and Florida Probate Proceedings: Do not Assume Anything

          In Florida, if for some reason your marriage ends, there are some instances where your ex-spouse’s rights to inheritance under your estate plan are automatically severed. In Florida, the ex-spouse is automatically cut out of any estate planning documents, reducing the need to amend a will in the event of a divorce. Also, if a couple owns a house in Florida as tenants by the entireties, that joint interest is severed upon divorce and they become tenants in common. The divorce changes the property interest, and allows that each ex-spouse inherits their half, but the other half does not automatically transfer to the surviving ex-spouse. However, all of these automatic changes happen when the property is located in Florida. What changes if the property is located in a foreign country? A case out of the Second District Court of Appeals addressed the issue in Ebanks v. Ebanks.

Arthur and Diane Ebanks were divorced in Florida in 2008. Arthur executed his will on the day he filed for divorce in 2006. The Ebanks jointly owned three water front properties in the Cayman Islands. In his will, Arthur provided that upon his death, the property jointly held will pass to the survivor. The property in the Cayman Islands was owned under “joint proprietorship,” which is a form of holding title in the Cayman Islands which is similar to joint tenancy with right of survivor ship. Under “joint proprietorship” the interest of the deceased proprietor would transfer to the surviving proprietor. There is no law in the Cayman Islands dissolving a joint proprietorship in the event of divorce.

What happens to Your Pets When you Pass Away?

In addition to the human members of one’s families, many individuals also have animal members of their family. Because pets are so important to many families, it is often appropriate to make provision in one’s will or trust for one’s pets. While pets cannot take under a testamentary will, a pet owner may still be able to set money aside and account for her pet’s care. An owner may create a pet trust under state law or may grant a person with the authority to care for their pet as a guardian.

You may have heard of celebrities in the news giving large devises to their pets, which may have been upsetting to other beneficiaries (or people who thought they should have been beneficiaries). For example, Leona Helmsley left $12 million to her dog, opting to leave her grandchildren out of her will. When a devise to the pet is considerably large, however, a court may step in. Leona Helmsley’s dog wound up only inheriting $2 million after a court determined $12 million was too high.

Understanding Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Under Florida Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act

Social networking, e-mail, and digital platforms are here to stay; unfortunately, we are not. Internet users must plan for the management and disposition of their assets in similar ways that they make plans for tangible property.

Florida statutes define a digital asset as “an electronic record in which an individual has a right or interest.” When a user with digital assets passes away or becomes incapacitated, a representative may want access to these digital assets to collect financial records of the decedent, to prevent identity theft, or even for sentimental reasons. There are various state and federal privacy laws, however, that may prevent one from acquiring this information. Amongst these laws is the Florida Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act. The Act applies to a fiduciary acting under a will, trust, or power of attorney executed before, on, or after July 1, 2016 Fla. Stat. § 740.08. Chapter 740 generally prevents access to electronic information and assets without specific authorization from a user, even if a general grant of authority has been given to a fiduciary. As such, if the user desires that the agent have access to electronically stored information digital information or digital assets, they must curate the operating document to include a special authorization to that effect.

Probating the Estate of a Missing Person

Even more excruciating than the death of a beloved person is arguably the uncertainty when the beloved person goes missing and his or her body is never recovered. Florida laws contain rules that allow the surviving family members to complete the mourning process, declare the missing person dead, and move on with their lives. One of the issues that the surviving members must deal with is the distribution of the estate of the deceased. Can you probate a missing person’s estate?

The answer is yes. However, as the first step, the missing person must be declared fictitiously dead. Under Florida Statute §731.103(3), a person who is absent from the place of his or her last-known domicile for a continuous period of five years and whose absence is not satisfactorily explained after diligent search and inquiry is presumed to be dead. The thoroughness of the search for the missing person is considered on a case by case basis; therefore, what may be enough in one case might be insufficient in another one. What is clear though is that at least some search must be done every time.

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