Locating Deceased Person’s Assets in a Digital Age

More and more financial institutions are pushing their customers to forgo receiving paper account statements and instead receive all of their statements and account correspondence electronically. What happens, then, when the account holder dies?

In the age before digital communication, when someone died, if the identity and extent of the deceased person’s asset holdings was not apparent to the estate administrator, one simply had to wait a month or so to receive the decedent’s mail to discover most, if not all of the decedent’s financial accounts. Eventually, it would be apparent what accounts were owned by the deceased person.

All of that has changed for someone who does all of their financial business online, however. What happens, then, when a forward-looking, media-savvy loved one dies, and you discover that the deceased person received no paper financial statements, and kept all of her financial data on her computer rather than in paper files?

This problem was faced by a colleague of mine who is assisting with the estate of a deceased security-sensitive computer programmer who had all of his financial affairs on his computer, and who did all of his financial transactions by email or online, and who protected access to his computer and computer transactions with strong passwords that he did not share with anyone.

Because it may be hard to discover what assets the decedent owns for the reasons discussed above, I recommend that people not choose to receive their financial statements exclusively online and that they continue to receive paper account statements through the mail.

Because not everyone does this, however, what should one do if they have a family member who has died and whose financial life is locked away in a password protected computer?

When my colleague faced this issue, she put out a call to other lawyers seeking referrals to technology professionals who could assist in accessing the deceased person’s computer notwithstanding that access to the computer was password protected.

My colleague received the following suggestions:

One reference, https://www.compforensics.com/mark-lanterman, was identified as a national expert, and the referring party suggested that his services “might not come cheap.”

Another reference, https://www.forensicon.com, had been engaged by a lawyer “in a litigation setting, with good results.”

Another respondent to the inquiry advised that “A simple google search of computer forensic services in Maryland yields a few seemingly reputable agencies, namely: https://catzen.com/ and http://burgessforensics.com/”

Yet another attorney had previously engaged the services of SBG Computer Consulting (sbg_consulting@verizon.net) to assist in retrieving all of the business and personal computer data from a deceased person’s computer that had been deleted by someone before or after the person had died.

When someone dies leaving no evidence of their financial assets except for computer files that are not accessible to surviving family members and the estate administrator, then the estate administrator will be required to obtain technical assistance from professionals such as those mentioned above in order to inventory and take control of the deceased person’s assets.

Please note that neither I nor the Gatesman Law Office have had any experience with the technical professionals referenced above, and my mention of them in this article is in no way an endorsement of those service providers. Nevertheless, I have included their contact information as a point of reference for anyone seeking to do research in this area.

Moreover, I would recommend that any person seeking to access a decedent’s financial data stored on the decedent’s computer first consult with legal counsel well versed in dealing with decedent’s estates to ensure that such person not take a misstep with respect to the decedent’s estate.

William M. Gatesman, Attorney at Law

William M. Gatesman assists clients in Maryland and D.C. in the areas of elder law and Medicaid planning, asset protection planning, special needs planning, estate planning, probate and estate administration, wills, trusts, powers of attorney, and health care decision making documents.  Mr. Gatesman is available to meet with clients in his offices in Rockville, Columbia, Frederick and Hagerstown, Maryland, and is available to make house calls as needed in those locations and in other areas of Maryland and D.C.

Call 301-260-0095 for more information or to make an appointment.

The purpose of this website is to educate consumers and their advocates regarding legal developments that may affect their lives. Mr. Gatesman has written the articles that follow on this website, organized by date of publication. To assist you in locating articles of interest, there is a search feature and a subject matter index in the column on the right side as you scroll down this page. You also may sign up to receive newly published articles by email in the newsletter signup box on the right.

Are You Paying Too Much to Apply for Medicaid?

The requirements imposed upon individuals seeking Medicaid benefits to pay nursing home costs have become less onerous in recent years.  For many years, Medicaid applicants were required to submit monthly statements for every bank and investment account for every one of the 60 months preceding the filing of the Medicaid application.  Under that regime, someone with only 4 bank accounts would have to submit 240 individual account statements.  Then, once those statements were submitted, they were reviewed by a Medicaid caseworker who was on the lookout for any “questionable” transactions.

“Questionable” transactions include unexplained deposits and substantial expenditures.  Therefore, unless the source is obvious from the account statement, any deposit showing up on those 240 statements would be questioned by the Medicaid caseworker seeking to ascertain the source of the funds deposited, and any payment of $1,000 or more likewise would be called into question.  The problem is magnified if the applicant or the applicant’s spouse had any additional bank or investment accounts.

That being the case, in order to be prepared to address a Medicaid caseworker’s questions, lawyers assisting Medicaid applicants under the old system would review all of the bank statements and seek explanations from the applicant or applicant’s family for any transactions that likely would be questioned.  That process could be time consuming, and, if the law firm performing such review billed the client on an hourly basis, then the legal fees to pursue the Medicaid application would be high.

In recent years, however, the Medicaid application process has been streamlined.  No longer is a Medicaid applicant required to submit 60 individual account statements for each of the 60 months preceding the month the Medicaid application is filed.  Now, applicants need only submit a few statements for the most recent months, and then a single statement for a particular month for each of the preceding five years.  Hence, under current practice, rather than submitting 60 statements for each account, an applicant only has to submit 8 statements, and it is only those 8 statements that will be scrutinized by the Medicaid caseworker.   Thus, for a Medicaid applicant with four accounts, the number of statements needed to be submitted for scrutiny was reduced from 240 to 32.

If one were to continue to operate under the old system and submit 60 monthly statements for each account, and then spend the time to closely scrutinize each of those statements and any transactions that might be called into question, then such person would  be doing extra work for little or no added benefit.

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The Steps to Selling Your House Quickly

I often work with people who, in the administration of the estate of a deceased loved one, find themselves in the position of having to sell the deceased person’s house. Useful to such clients, and to anyone else who is selling a house, are these tips, the Steps to Selling Your House Quickly, which tips one of my mentors, who has much experience investing in and selling homes, shared with me.

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The Fox is Guarding the Hen House in a Maryland Guardianship

In Maryland, if one asks a Court to appoint a guardian for a person who is alleged to be disabled (the “alleged disabled person”) where such alleged disabled person is believed to be unable to manage his or her own affairs, the Court will appoint a lawyer to represent the alleged disabled person (the “court appointed counsel”). Sometimes, if there is a need to take immediate action to protect the alleged disabled person, the Court might, on the strength of a petition alone, appoint a temporary guardian for the alleged disabled person, which temporary guardian often is a lawyer chosen by the court.

In theory, the court appointed counsel and the temporary guardian are fiduciaries whose job it is to protect the interests of the alleged disabled person. Sometimes, however, it appears that such court appointed fiduciaries do not fulfill that responsibility.

Consider the following circumstance.

A health care facility is caring for Husband. Wife is unhappy with the facility’s treatment and wants husband to come home, and for the moment is withholding payment. Wife holds a financial power of attorney and a medical power of attorney for her husband, meaning that she has authority to manage his personal, medical, and financial affairs.

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Medicaid Updates Transfer Penalty Rule

If one applies for Medicaid to pay for long term care in a nursing home, the state will look to see if the applicant made any gifts in the five years preceding the Medicaid application. If so, then (with some exceptions addressed in various articles on this website) a period of Medicaid ineligibility will be imposed.

For many years before 2014, the period of ineligibility was determined by dividing the amount of the gift by $6,800, which amount was supposed to be the average monthly cost of care in a nursing home. In July, 2014, that number was changed to $7,940. Medicaid has again updated the divisor to take into account Nursing Home care cost inflation.

Effective July 1, 2016, the divisor to determine the number of months of Medicaid ineligibility for gift transfers is $8,684, which means that one would be ineligible for one month for every $8,684 in gifts made during the five years preceding the Medicaid application.

Bear in mind that the term “gift” means any transfer of resources with respect to which the transferor did not receive full value. Thus, if a person sold her house for less than it’s fair market value (Medicaid uses assessed value or an appraisal to determine fair market value), then Medicaid will treat the difference between the sales price and the deemed fair market value to be a gift transfer even if such sale was made to a third party in a bona fide arms length transaction.

We at the Gatesman Law Office endeavor to stay at the cutting edge of new developments in Medicaid law and policy.

Should you have any questions as to how this new policy might affect you or a loved one, please contact us by clicking the Contact link on this website.

Bill Gatesman

A People’s Lawyer

A client recently posted a review of my services on AVVO, the independent legal resource website. You may CLICK HERE to read the review.

This client referred to me as “A People’s Lawyer,” and wrote the following:

William Gatesman assisted me in having my father’s trust terminated and the trust assets distributed to me and the other beneficiaries of the trust before the time that those assets were supposed to be distributed. We did this with a petition to the circuit court and the court allowed the distribution without holding a hearing based upon Mr. Gatesman’s written petition. And, while I engaged Mr. Gatesman to obtain this result, he went a step further and negotiated with the Trustee’s attorney to get the trustee to reimburse me for expenses I had paid relating to my father’s death, something I had been trying to do without success. Finally, Mr. Gatesman proposed and worked out an arrangement whereby the other trust beneficiaries agreed to reimburse me for a portion of my legal fees.

I am very pleased with Mr. Gatesman’s representation. He was easy to work with, he got me the result I had requested, and he made suggestions for other ways I could benefit from the representation and succeeded in obtaining those results. I highly recommend William M. Gatesman.

When a Parent Dies Owning a House with a Mortgage, May the Children Inherit the House Without Getting a New Mortgage?

When a parent dies owning a house that is subject to a mortgage, the question arises whether a child or other beneficiary of the parent’s estate can inherit the real property without obtaining a new mortgage by simply continuing to make the payments on the existing mortgage.

In general, mortgages are subject to a “due on sale clause,” which is a term in the mortgage agreement that allows the lender to accelerate the loan (that is, immediately collect the balance due) upon the transfer, or retitling of the real property to another person. However, under Federal law, there are a number of transfers that may be made without triggering a due on sale clause, including a transfer of the property to a relative of the deceased owner as a consequence of the owner’s death.

That Federal law is known as the “Garn-St Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982”, which is codified at 12 USC 1701j-3.

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Beware the Revocable Trust Creditor Trap

In Maryland, creditors may not make a claim against a deceased person’s estate once six months have passed since the person’s death. What that means is that a creditor seeking to assert a claim six months or more following someone’s death will not be allowed to collect the debt.

One exception to this rule is that a creditor who has a secured interest, for example, a bank that holds a mortgage on the deceased person’s real property, will still be able to collect against the proceeds of the sale of such real property, and retains the right to foreclose on the real property if the mortgage payments are not being made. However, such bank would be precluded from collecting more than the sales proceeds if the house sells for less than the mortgage loan balance if the bank did not make a claim in the estate of the deceased person within six months following that person’s death.

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New Procedure to Obtain Estate Tax Return Closing Letter

The Internal Revenue Service will no longer routinely issue estate tax closing letters when it finishes satisfactorily processing an estate tax return. In an online Notice published -HERE-, the IRS states that “estate tax closing letters will be issued only upon request by the taxpayer.” That Notice sets forth the procedure whereby a taxpayer or tax preparer may obtain a Transcript in lieu of a closing letter to ascertain that an estate tax return has been accepted by the IRS.

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