Monday, November 26, 2012

Walmart to Pay Dividend in December Instead of January to Avoid Fiscal Cliff

According to an article in Reuters, the dividend that Walmart usually pays in late January will be moved up to late December, so that its shareholders will be able to have their qualified dividends taxed at the current 15% rate, instead of possibly being included in ordinary income (at a top 39.5% rate) if Congress fails to take action to avoid the "fiscal cliff." Stay tuned!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Laurie Hunter Honored by CBA/CLE in Colorado, Inc.

Laurie A. Hunter will be presented with the Richard N. Doyle CLE Award of Excellence at the Colorado Bar Association/CLE in Colorado, Inc.'s annual Reception and Wine Tasting on December 3, 2012. The Award will be presented to Laurie in honor of her dedication and outstanding contributions to CBA/CLE programs and publications. Please join us in congratulating Laurie for this wonderful recognition of her efforts!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Estate Planning and Digital Assets

The digital age has lead us to rely on computers and the internet for storage of many of our important documents and personal information. In an effort to centralize information and reduce the number of papers cluttering our lives, many have moved to digital storage. We purchase books, music, movies, etc. via internet retailers and store these purchases on our personal computers, digital devices or in the cloud. In addition, we manage our financial accounts online and have switched to paperless statements, rarely, if ever, receiving any paper communications. The question now becomes, what happens to these accounts and assets when we die. Conventional wisdom used to be that the personal representative (executor) would simply have the decedent’s mail forwarded and eventually he or she would be able to identify the decedent’s assets and creditors through the correspondence received.

Unfortunately, the ease of the digital age has created unexpected difficulty for personal representatives. How does a personal representative fully identify a decedent’s assets when he or she is not afforded access to the decedent’s online financial and email accounts? To complicate matters, the law is unclear as to whether a decedent actually owns the digital files he or she has purchased and now stores on his or her digital device, personal computer or in the cloud. Many digital content retailers provide that the consumer is simply purchasing a license to use the content, but does not actually own the property. In addition, the use of a cloud service further complicates matters, as it is uncertain as to who owns the stored content, the cloud operator or the consumer.

Further, many retailers do not have policies in place as to inheritance of use licenses, nor termination dates for those licenses. In practice, a personal representative can copy the files and transfer possession as he or she would any other personal property, in accordance with the decedent’s wishes. Transferring ownership, however, is more complicated and as of right now there is no clear answer as to how to properly effectuate the transfer.

With respect to digital accounts such as email and financial accounts, a personal representative may be able to gain access, if he or she is afforded the login and password information prior to the decedent’s death. Accessing these accounts, however, may technically be in violation of terms of service. Further, once the personal representative notifies the account provider of the decedent’s death, future access may be denied, or the account terminated and deleted altogether. Denial of access to email accounts could potentially prevent a personal representative from fully identifying the decedent’s assets and creditors.

Social media websites further complicate matters as each host is free to provide policies as to what happens at a person’s death. Facebook for example turns the decedent’s page into a living memorial in which all aspects of the page are frozen in time, with the exception of the decedent’s wall, which remains available for friends and family to post messages.

The legislature has been slow to accommodate the changing digital landscape. A few states, including Connecticut and Rhode Island have enacted legislation allowing a personal representative to access a decedent’s email account. A few other states, including Idaho, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Indiana have enacted laws allowing heirs to obtain access to digital accounts. In Colorado, the Trust & Estate Section of the Colorado Bar Association is exploring proposing legislation to address digital assets and accounts; however, a clear direction has yet to be determined to address all facets of digital media and provide personal representatives and heirs with the best solution. The main problem facing the legislature is that statutes granting a personal representative or heir with access to the decedent’s digital assets and accounts are often in conflict with the terms of service contracted between the decedent and the company holding the assets/account; thus, there is no guarantee that the company will be required to provide access.

In the meantime, it is essential that consumers plan ahead. Within the confines of the estate planning process, consumers should create an inventory of their digital assets and ensure that login and password information is readily available to assist their personal representatives and heirs with the estate administration process. Individuals may also consider including specific direction and bequests with regard to their digital assets and accounts in their Wills or other dispositive documents. While it is not clear whether a personal representative will be able to actually transfer ownership to the intended beneficiary, the company holding the asset may be more likely to assist the personal representative in transfer of the assets when there is specific direction provided in the decedent’s Will.