5 minute guide: What to think about when planning afterlife messages

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Messages from the beyond: how planned messages can be a comfort for those grieving

Planning messages from the beyond: using digital services

How to limit emotional fall out when planning digital afterlife messages

How to avoid legal issues for beneficiaries when planning digital afterlife messages

How to avoid legal issues for beneficiaries when planning digital afterlife messages

legal_contest_digital_afterlife_messagesWith courts recognising informal documents such as notes, emails, letters, video as having legal standing, another key aspect to think about carefully is what to include in post-mortem messages intended for next of kin, family or friends. Even if your intent is good, by leaving a personal message you may raise a recipient’s expectations or sense of entitlement relating to an inheritance and risk the potential of your estate instructions being questioned after death.

Darryl Browne, Solicitor at Browne-Linkenbagh explains that there has been a 60 per cent increase in claims over the last decade in Australia largely initiated by people who have been acknowledged within informal documentation by a deceased party which has later been used to contest the deceased person’s will.

In the UK also, claims for mis-handling a deceased person’s estate has tripled in a year, the result of inadequate safe guards put in place as people rely more and more on DIY wills and informal estate planning measures.

“When you make declarations that are wrong, that overly inflate a person’s worth to you or are inflammatory when recording last wishes, it can be counterproductive,” says Browne. “If a will is contested, claims will take two or more years to be resolved and can have significant emotional, legal and financial implications for the intended beneficiaries of your estate.”

If a person is thinking about planning post-mortem messages to leave words of comfort or communicate last thoughts to friends and family, it’s important to think about how these might be read and interpreted by the recipients. Legal complications may follow and the awarding of a deceased’s estate may be contested if:

  • Messages are inflammatory in nature
  • They include explanation as to why someone received or didn’t receive an inheritance from their estate
  • They imply in some way that the recipient is or should be a beneficiary – whether directly or indirectly

Legal advisers recommend that messages of an inflammatory nature are not included in wills or documents relating to how inheritance is to be awarded. Browne highlights the recent example of a man who stated that no provisions were to be made to his wife in his will giving reasons such as the marriage had broken down irretrievably and that they had been living separately for twenty years. However, it was his added description “and she is a compulsive and addicted gambler” that his wife took objection to inciting her to bring a case to the Supreme Court of South Australia to have these words removed. She lost but the intended beneficiaries were impacted by the emotional and financial fall out while the case was reviewed and the awarding of the estate was held back.

Kay Lam-McLeod, IT Lawyer from IdeaLaw would counsel against leaving a message that would stir up anger or resentment. “That’s only going to make it more likely that your will would be challenged,” she points out. “Remember that if your will is challenged, the estate will get hit with legal fees and it holds up distribution. So the people you want to leave your inheritance to are the ones who will suffer as a result.”

Similarly, when someone points out in a message, will, informal document or message that a friend, relative or partner is significant in their life, that person may later have a reasonable expectation of inheritance. In the case of Skarica v. Toska, a partner of a deceased woman was awarded a share of her estate even though she had specified he shouldn’t because she had simultaneously indicated in her will that he was someone important in her life.

So what steps are recommended to avoid raising legal issues down the track?

Browne suggests the following:

  • Think about digital afterlife message leaving as part of an overall estate planning program. Leaving aside the legal ramifications, casual, unconsidered messages can have negative emotional consequences, even if not intended.
  • When making a will and considering estate planning, meet with a legal representative to discuss who could bring a claim against your estate after you’ve died. Plan your communications to take into account these future scenarios, even if you don’t like to think in this way.
  • While short messages to beneficiaries can be included in a will, if you wanted to leave a more lengthy message that acknowledged someone in particular or offer clarification/explanation for a decision or award that you are making, make sure that this is drafted with a legal representative or a Justice of Peace as part of carefully prepared statement.
    • This kind of representative will ask for supporting evidence and instances to back up any statements you make, which will make your statement more likely to stand up to scrutiny in the event of any legal contestation.
  • Avoid inflammatory or inaccurate remarks that may bring about legal action that beneficiaries will have to deal with.
  • Ensure any messages are accurate and supported by facts; avoid overly inflating a person’s importance in your life. If you feel a person is so important to you, why not recognise them in your will?

Lam-McLeod offers some final words. “Have a will drafted up properly by a lawyer. The messages you leave will not be a replacement for a proper will.” She adds, “Then talk to your loved ones before you die. The most important messages are ones that should be said in person, not left for someone to find later.”

Any additional thoughts on how to leave post-mortem messages for loved ones? As ever, drop your comments below.

READ: What digital afterlife services exist to help with planning messages from the beyond?

Planning messages from the beyond

Including messages as part of estate planning for next of kin and/or other family and friends can provide tremendous comfort for those mourning the loss of someone they love. It’s important however that these personal messages are not executed casually.

Leaving behind a carelessly written note or one that has been recorded in haste can result in emotional fall out for relatives or friends already dealing with loss. It can also have legal ramifications for how the estate is later administered, leaving a will vulnerable to contestation which in turn results in considerable delays and potential costs for named beneficiaries.

This two-part feature will cover the offline and digital options in planning post mortem communications as well as considerations to avoid legal pitfalls.

What digital services exist to incorporate message giving as part of estate planning?

With the emergence and increasing reliance on the internet and digital services, it’s not surprising that there are many new online offerings catering for the digital afterlife.

There are several which help users do an audit of and manage their digital accounts and many of these already offer additional service components which enable someone to add personal messages for their next of kin or intended estate recipients.

Fred Schebesta, co-founder of finder.com.au, an online financial services comparison website points out that the choice of online apps and services is wide ranging.

“Facebook apps like IfIDie.net allow you to leave a personal message on your Facebook if you were to die. When signing up for the app you designate three participating friends who will let the app know when you pass away, which then prompts it to release your pre-recorded message,” says Schebesta. “There’s even a startup called Eterni.me that’s developing a service where you can create an online avatar that your loved ones can interact with.”

New services such as Eterniam provide access to digital assets to next of kin, family or friends as designated by the account owner. Parvez Anandam CEO for Eterniam says, “these digital assets can be photos, videos and important documents including both important legal ones as well as deeply personal ones such as letters to loved ones.”

Another recent digital afterlife start up, Passing Bye, offers users the option of assigning private messages and journal sharing to their nominated kin. With the Last Private Message feature, account holders can convey thoughts and notes that are sent to recipients as simple written messages. If a member is looking to include more, they can set up a journal entry or series of entries that can include photos and videos with text.

All these digital services will work using a fee structure, generally requiring an account holder to pay monthly or annual tariffs although in some cases they may include an option for the user to pay a one time lifetime fee.

For someone doesn’t want to pay for a service, the Facebook afterlife app ifIdie.net and many of these aforementioned companies also offer basic free services to accompany their premium offerings. They are often provided as a sample to entice subscribers to upgrade.

Another option for regular or avid Google users is Google Inactive Manager, a free service for account holders. Its objective is to encourage users to plan what happens to their Google data after death and includes a private written message option as part of the nomination or destroy process. This feature is available even if the user decides that all data is to be destroyed by the service provider. The downside to using this service is that Google will send messages and follow afterlife instructions only after a timeframe of at least three months. As a result, Google Inactive Manager will not be of benefit for messages that are time sensitive or include information that next of kin require immediately. How to sign up to Google Inactive Manager.

Important legal and practical considerations

digital_afterlife_estate_planning_messages

Credit: Shho

 

As I’ve previously emphasised, it’s very important with any digital offering supporting your estate management efforts, that you understand their terms and conditions. This article gives a good summary on things to consider when signing up to a digital afterlife service but some questions to ask and think about when doing your assessment include:

 

  • How are they managing your data and what are your privacy or legal rights?
  • Under what conditions will the provider share your data with third parties?
  • What will happen to your information if the service expires before you do? Will they make good on delivering your messages or refund your membership fee if they fail to action?
  • How do nominated next of kin, friends and family receive instructions after your death? Does it suit your online lifestyle?

With courts recognising informal documents such as notes, emails, letters, video as having legal standing, another key aspect to think about carefully is what to include in post-mortem messages intended for next of kin, family or friends. Even if your intent is good, by leaving a personal message you may raise a recipient’s expectations or sense of entitlement relating to an inheritance and risk the potential of your estate instructions being questioned after death.

Darryl Browne, Solicitor at Browne-Linkenbagh explains that there has been a 60 per cent increase in claims over the last decade in Australia largely initiated by people who have been acknowledged within informal documentation by a deceased party which has later been used to contest the deceased person’s will.

“When you make declarations that are wrong, that overly inflate a person’s worth to you or are inflammatory when recording last wishes, it can be counterproductive,” says Browne. “If a will is contested, claims will take two or more years to be resolved and can have significant emotional, legal and financial implications for the intended beneficiaries of your estate.”

Kay Lam-McLeod, IT Lawyer from IdeaLaw agrees. “Remember that if your will is challenged, the estate will get hit with legal fees and it holds up distribution. So the people you want to leave your inheritance to are the ones who will suffer as a result.”

NEXT: What to think about when planning digital and offline post-mortem messages to avoid legal complications for beneficiaries.

If a will is drafted on a mobile phone, is it valid?

digital afterlife or legacy on phone

Credit: Michal Zacharzewski, SXC

According to this recent blog post by IdeaLaw, the answer is “yes, it can be!” There has been a case in Queensland already in which the court ruled that a will drafted on an iPhone was valid.

Three elements need to be satisfied for a court to find an informal will valid.

1) That it is a document
2) That the document states the deceased’s intentions for their estate after their death
3) That the deceased intended the document to be a will

Which leads to an important question.

Are there or could there be wills drafted on social networking sites or within an email inbox that could be declared valid in the future?

IdeaLaw proposes that this could be so if these above elements can be demonstrated. Read their blog post for a legal perspective on the Queensland example and potential consequences in layman’s terms.

Messages from Beyond

Digital afterlife messages from beyond

Ben Earwicker, Garrison Photography

I love reading through and reminding myself of the messages received from DBS after he died. When I say that, I don’t mean ‘other realm’ kind of messages delivered by a psychic or similar. Instead, I’m referring to handwritten notes or cards written by him and addressed to me which I received after his death.

They provided tremendous comfort and still do. Which has made me think about how I should leave messages to friends and family for when my time comes. It’s not an easy thing to think about but if you’re making a digital will that addresses practical items such as password transfer to next of kin or instructions on what to do with your digital information, including a personal message with this information may be a logical next step.

 

Messages from DBS

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that my brother preferred committing thoughts down by pen and paper as opposed to using email or social. We weren’t reliable communicators but despite this, I received multiple messages from him over a period of several weeks after he died.

The first message I received from DBS was two days after his death. Sitting in my mailbox, was a postcard that had been sent several weeks previously but took its time to arrive because he’d sent it from a very remote overseas location. Later there was the card he’d scrawled to me in Afghanistan but that he hadn’t had a chance to send which came back with his personal effects.

Months later when sorting through his papers at home, I came across his ‘unofficial’ will, a piece of dated A4 paper in his beautiful, black ink writing stating his intention for his estate. While mostly formal in nature, he’d included a personal message to me. I was touched and moved for days afterwards.

Finally, his diary revealed what I hadn’t been able to discover from Google because of their stance they took (at that time) of not sharing an account holder’s data with next of kin without going through legal proceedings. When DBS died, one of the first things I wanted to know at the time and eventually obsessed about, was whether or not he had read my emails that I’d sent to him while he was stationed in Afghanistan. Somehow, not knowing if he had received them meant that they started to represent something more significant for me; whether or not he knew that he was in my thoughts and that I loved him.

When I eventually brought myself to read his diary months later, I saw an entry dated 21 October that opened with…. ”Today, I received another lovely email from Emily….”

Words cannot describe how I felt at that time. It seemed as though I had received a personal answer from him to the question that had hounded me for a significant period of time.

Learn how to transition your email and personal data to next of kin using Google Inactive Manager.

Things to consider when working with digital services offering to send messages to loved ones

DBS hadn’t planned the way in which I received messages from him after he died with the exception of his handwritten will. I feel fortunate though that I received them and the emotional benefits are unquantifiable. On each occasion, his notes gave me a real sense of happiness and I almost felt as if he was visiting me in some way. I still glow when I think about them and value these mementos.

For anyone considering estate planning, I’d recommend including this kind of personal touch for friends and family for conveying love and providing comfort.

Given my own experience, I’m a fan of planning with handwritten notes however, there are now a wealth of digital services that you can work with to leave messages for loved ones with. A note of caution though. If you plan to go digital, check with the company to check their stability and financial status. A few companies I’ve researched from 2007 have been acquired or simply shut up shop, such can be the fleeting, temporary nature of digital. Also beware of the organisations that don’t have a long term vision or plan for their business. You want to be confident when signing up to a service that it will comfortably outlive you and honour your wishes in the future.

In all dealings with companies assisting you with digital afterlife services, I’d suggest researching with the following questions in mind:

  • How long is their commitment to providing digital services? Are they thinking day-to-day terms or over fifty years, hundred years?
  • What is their financial status?
  • What will happen to customers’ planning services in the event that they fold/are acquired?
  • Where how/will they share your final message? If it’s via a third party social networking platform, what happens to your message if the platform no longer exists?

It’s a new digital realm so it’s wise to do your background research. And spend some time understanding terms and conditions, particularly around what kind of jurisdictional rules may apply to you from a legal perspective and on what basis the company will share private data.

If you’re not confident about a digital service, do your own video recording and give it to your solicitor or a close family member or friend to look after while attending to your estate planning. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Based on my own experience, a simple handwritten note placed somewhere safely or with someone can make all the difference to those left behind.

NEXT ON THIS: DIGITAL AFTERLIFE MESSAGE SERVICES

Digital services for managing passwords and other important information

A legal representative such as a solicitor or lawyer can act as a third party confidant in helping you plan a digital afterlife and privately keep your passwords on file for next of kin. There are also many, many different digital legacy and afterlife services that are emerging and you can compare their approach. Here are some digital services that store and help you organise your confidential information including passwords and offer the option to transfer relevant information to beneficiaries when the time comes.

These are ones that I’ve been made aware of recently but not necessarily trialled. I’d recommend that you do research services thoroughly before committing to make sure that you find one that suits your requirements.  Many digital offerings provide the option of a free trial as well.

Are there others you’d suggest? If so, please drop details in the comments section below.

 

Cirrus Legacy

This service (UK based) allows clients to manage their online accounts on a day to day basis as well as upload and store critical documents appertaining to their life. Account information and documents or files can be assigned to an executor or a guardian after death to carry out their last wishes. Cirrus does not give ownership to any financial, sentimental, intellectual or social data but offers are a series of signposts if you will to the accounts for executors and family to deal with on a one to one basis.

According to Paul Golding who owes Cirrus Legacy, if the firm was acquired the data would move to the new owners, who would have to adhere to our clients wishes in regards to sharing and the usage of their personal information as specified by the client at sign-up. If the firm were to close down, a process is in place granting time for the individual client to retrieve their stored information. The company also runs an affiliate program across a UK solicitor network.

Passing Bye

Passing Bye focuses on providing a file vault for documents and a secure central password management system but also offers a journal type facility where you can store favourite personal items such as stories, memories, recipes, photos or videos. Another feature highlighted is the option to store last final messages which are sent to intended recipients when you’re gone. Sharing options and rights are built into the service and subscribers pay on an annual basis with a free 30 day trial available.

Planned Departure

Another service (UK based) that acts like an electronic vault, holding your important documents, account details and passwords. It was designed and built specifically for digital afterlife planning and requires you to give contact details for next of kin or nominated representatives to speak to when the time comes. The company offers a 14 day trial and offers payment plans on a monthly, yearly or lifetime basis.

SafelyFiled

SafelyFiled offers a platform for users to organise, store, and retrieve important documents and account details. It then allows the account owner to share information with family members or professional advisor. Different types of information can be shared with different beneficiaries and prompts are sent when it’s time to update or renew important documents. SafelyFiled offers a free account for medical information and a 30 day money back guarantee on other services if not fulfilling your needs. It also offers very useful checklist resources.

Your Digital File

Your Digital File is a newly launched service based in Australia specialising in the digital storage,sharing and signing of confidential documents. It positions itself as a hyper secure service both for personal and corporate use..

It securely protects confidential files from others (even Your Digital File can’t see them) and provides a secure means to share and manage documents. Nominated documents (ie wills), are released to beneficiaries when the account holder dies once verified by Your Digital File. The company has a tiered level of account offerings based on how much storage a subscriber needs.

 

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