2023 Tax Filing Season Opens on January 23

In IR-2023-5, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced that the tax-filing season will open on Monday, January 23, 2023. The IRS expects more than 168 million individual tax returns this year. Most taxpayers will file before the April 18 tax deadline. While the prior three years have been impacted by the COVID pandemic, the IRS hired over 5,000 new telephone staff and made other changes to improve the filing season.

Acting IRS Commissioner Doug O'Donnell stated, "This filing season is the first to benefit the IRS and our nation's tax system from multi-year funding in the Inflation Reduction Act. With these new additional resources, taxpayers and tax professionals will see improvements in many areas of the agency this year. We have trained thousands of new employees to answer phones and help people. While much work remains after several difficult years, we expect people to experience improvements this tax season."

The IRS has been updating its computers and other systems to prepare for the 2023 tax season. O'Donnell emphasized the systems will be ready to receive returns on January 23. Taxes must be filed and paid by Tuesday, April 18, 2023. If the individual desires to extend, the extended tax-filing date will be Monday, October 16, 2023.

The IRS recommends multiple specific steps for taxpayers to have a smooth filing experience.

1. Gather Your Information — All 2022 tax records should be gathered. This may include your Social Security numbers, Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, Adoption Taxpayer Identification Numbers or an Identity Protection Personal Identification Number. Additional forms may include IRS Forms 1099 from banks or other financial institutions that pay interest, unemployment compensation, dividends, pension or retirement plan distributions. If an individual is not self-employed, IRS Forms W-2 from any employers will be required. The IRS reminds individuals that nearly all income is taxable, including unemployment income, interest, digital asset sales, gig economy or other income.

2. Ask Questions on IRS.gov — The IRS emphasizes that it expects to provide better service, but many individuals will find answers to their questions on IRS.gov. O'Donnell noted, "Our phone volumes remain at very high levels. For faster access to information, we urge people to start with IRS.gov. From there, taxpayers can quickly access the variety of free resources available to help taxpayers anytime, day or night."

3. File Electronically — Taxpayers will have more accurate returns by filing electronically and selecting direct deposit. The direct deposit is normally through a bank account, prepaid debit card or mobile app.

4. IRS Free File — Several commercial tax-preparation software companies will be ready to launch the Free File program on January 23. Taxpayers with $73,000 or less in 2022 income qualify to use free commercial software on IRS.gov. All taxpayers can use the IRS Free File Fillable forms.

5. Prompt Refunds — The IRS has a goal to transfer refunds within 21 days if the taxpayer files electronically and chooses direct deposit. Taxpayers can check their refund status using "Where's My Refund?" on IRS.gov. Tax refunds may be delayed until mid-February for individuals who claim the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Additional Child Tax Credit. Congress requires the IRS to delay tax refunds for these returns until there is additional review.

6. IRS Online Account — Taxpayers are encouraged to create an IRS Online Account. It allows access to personal tax information, payments and adjusted gross income from prior tax years. The Interactive Tax Assistant (ITA) on IRS.gov also may answer many of your questions. If you have life event changes or are potentially eligible for credits, the ITA could be very helpful.

Employment Effects on Social Security Benefits

I started receiving Social Security retirement benefits in 2021 when I retired earlier than anticipated. I am now interested in going back to work part-time. Will returning to work affect my benefits and if so, how much?

You can collect Social Security retirement benefits and work at the same time but depending on how old you are and how much you earn, some or all of your benefits could be temporarily withheld. Here is how it works.

SSA Earning Rules

Social Security allows someone that is under full retirement age and collecting benefits, to earn up to $21,240 in 2023 without jeopardizing any Social Security benefits. However, if they earn more than $21,240, they will lose $1 in benefits for every $2 over that amount.

Full retirement age is 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954 but rises in two-month increments every birth year to age 67 for those born in 1960 and later. You can find your full retirement age at SSA.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/ageincrease.html.

The rules on earnings are less stringent in the year you reach your full retirement age. If that happens in 2023, you can earn up to $56,520 from January to the month before your birthday with no penalty. But if you earn more than $56,520 during that time, you will lose $1 in benefits for every $3 over that limit. Once your birthday passes, and you reach full retirement age, you can earn any amount without your benefits being reduced at all.

Wages, bonuses, commissions, and vacation pay all count toward the income limits but pensions, annuities, investment earnings, interest, capital gains and government or military retirement benefits do not. To figure out how much your specific earnings will affect your potential benefits, see the Social Security Retirement Earnings Test Calculator at SSA.gov/OACT/COLA/RTeffect.html.

It is also important to know that if you do lose any portion of your Social Security benefits because of the earning limits, it is not lost forever. When you reach full retirement age, your benefits will be recalculated and include credit for what was withheld.

For more information on how working can affect your Social Security benefits see SSA.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/whileworking.html.

Be Mindful of Taxes Too

In addition to the Social Security rules, you should also take U.S. federal tax laws into account. Because working increases your income, it might make your Social Security benefits taxable.

If the sum of your adjusted gross income (AGI), nontaxable interest, and half of your Social Security benefits is between $25,000 and $34,000 for individuals ($32,000 and $44,000 for couples), a tax is imposed of up to 50% of your benefits. Above $34,000 ($44,000 for couples) of earned income, will cause the taxes to increase to 85%, which is the highest portion of Social Security that is taxable. About a third of all people who get Social Security must pay income taxes on their benefits.

For more information, call the IRS at 800-829-3676 and ask them to mail you a free copy of publication 915 "Social Security and Equivalent Railroad Retirement Benefits" or you can view it online at IRS.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p915.pdf.

In addition to the federal government, 12 states – Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia – tax Social Security benefits to some extent. If you live in one of these states, you will need to check with your state tax agency for details.

Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living" book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization's official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.

Simple Home Safety Solutions

I worry about home safety for my parent who lives alone. Do you have any suggestions on what I can do to help keep them safe from hazards such as falls and fires?

There are several small adjustments and modifications you can be made to help protect from falls and fires, both of which cause thousands of injuries and deaths each year. Here are some tips to get you started.

Eliminate tripping hazards: Since falls are the leading cause of home injury among seniors, a good place to start is to assess the layout of the home. If there are throw rugs, a common tripping hazard, use carpet tacks or double-sided tape to secure them or remove them entirely. Ensure the furniture is placed so there are clear pathways to walk through and position any electrical or phone cords along walls and out of the way.

For hardwood stairs, consider attaching a nonslip tread to each step to provide traction and help your parent see the edge of the step. For added protection in the bathroom, purchase some nonskid rugs for the floors. Place adhesive nonslip treads or a mat with rubber suction inside the tub or shower stall to prevent slips.

Improve the lighting: Proper lighting is essential for safety. Check the wattage ratings on the lamps and light fixtures and install the brightest bulbs allowed. Adding supplemental lighting to eliminate dark areas is also helpful.

You should also purchase some dusk to dawn nightlights for the bathroom and hallways. It is also a good idea to mount motion sensor lights outside the front and back doors and in the driveway that automatically come on after dark.

Get grab bars: Grab bars can significantly reduce the risk of bathroom falls. Install them at the entry to the shower or tub and on a wall inside the stall, but do not use grab bars that attach with suction. Instead, have wall-mounted bars installed by a professional who can affix them to the wall studs. It is also best to choose bars with surfaces that are slightly textured and easier to grip.

Ensure railings are stable: Wherever there are steps – stairways, entryways or basements – it is essential to have sturdy railings. Ideally, the railings should be on both sides of the steps.

Prevent cooking fires: There are several affordable products you can purchase to help prevent home cooking fires. There are discs that attach to a stove's knob that will continuously blink or beep after the stove has been in use for a preset amount of time and "smart knobs" that can control a stove's heating settings from a mobile device. In addition, there are higher tech options such as stove sensors that shut off the stove when they do not detect motion for a certain number of minutes or that send an alert if unsafe cooking temperatures are reached.

Install smoke alarms: Install a "smart" smoke alarm in the house (one for each floor) that will alert your parent when smoke or carbon monoxide is detected. These smart devices will also send alerts to your phone to let you know when a problem is detected.

Add fire extinguishers: Get portable multipurpose fire extinguishers for each level of the house and in the garage.

Consider a medical alert device: To provide you some peace of mind, consider getting a medical alert device that comes with a wearable SOS button that will allow your parent to call for help in case they fall or need assistance.

Many organizations publish tips and checklists to help ensure a safe living space. You can search for these on the internet using the key phrase "home safety checklist". You will find many suggestions that can help make your parent's home safer and easier to live in.

Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living" book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization's official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.

How to Reduce Your Medical Bills

What tips do you recommend to Medicare beneficiaries dealing with large medical bills? My partner is recovering from heart surgery. The medical bills are coming in quickly and straining us financially.

Medical debt has become a widespread issue in the United States. According to U.S. Census data, 19% of American households carry medical debt, including 10% of households headed by someone age 65 or older. Even seniors on Medicare can struggle with complicated billing and coverage problems. To help lower your medical bills, here are some tips recommended by health care experts.

Double check your bills: Medical bills may contain errors, including duplicate charges or in some cases charges for services you never received. If you are facing a high bill and are required to pay for some portion of it, request itemized invoices from the hospital and other providers that detail the charges. Go through the invoices line by line and if you find something you do not understand or come across something you do not recall, contact the provider for an explanation or a correction.

Wait for your EOB: Doctors' offices and hospitals may mail initial bills to you before they even submit them to your health insurer. Hold off on any payment until you receive an explanation of benefits (EOB) from your provider – Medicare, supplemental Medicare, Medicare Advantage, or private insurer. This will show what you owe after your insurance has paid its portion.

If your EOB shows that your insurer is refusing to pay for services that you think should be covered, call them to see whether it is a correctable mistake, such as a coding error for a certain test or treatment. If it is truly a denial of coverage, you may need to file an appeal. For details on how to file a Medicare appeal, see Medicare.gov/claims-appeals/how-do-i-file-an-appeal.

Ask for a discount: You can also call the hospital's accounting office or the billing staff at your doctor's practice and ask if they can reduce your bill. If you do have the funds to pay the entire bill, ask the hospital or provider for a "prompt pay" discount which may save you between 10% to 25%.

If it is best for you to pay your bills over time, ask the billing office to set up a no-interest payment plan for you. Many providers offer payment plans to help ease the burden of medical debt.

You can also call the hospital directly and ask a billing specialist if the facility offers financial assistance. According to the American Hospital Association, almost half of U.S. hospitals are nonprofit. This means they may offer free or discounted services in some instances. This is usually reserved for low to moderate-income patients who have limited or no health insurance, but requirements vary from hospital to hospital.

Get help: If you have not had any success on your own, contact the Patient Advocate Foundation to see if they can help you. If the Patient Advocate Foundation is available, they may offer assistance with understanding and negotiating your medical bills, free of charge. You may also consider hiring a medical billing professional to negotiate for you. However, be aware that these services can be costly. Be sure to choose someone who is credentialed by the Patient Advocate Certification Board.

Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living" book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization's official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.


Published December 30, 2022

IRA to Charitable Gift Annuity Rollover in 2023

Section 307 of the Secure 2.0 Act allows a one-time rollover of $50,000 from an IRA to a life income plan. This provision amends Internal Revenue Code Section 408(d)(8) and creates a limited one-time IRA rollover into certain qualified life income plans. The qualified charitable distribution (QCD) of up to $50,000 into a life income plan is permitted on or after January 1, 2023.

The $50,000 IRA distribution may be to a charitable remainder annuity trust (CRAT), a standard payout charitable remainder unitrust (CRUT) or an immediate charitable gift annuity (CGA). A net income plus makeup unitrust (NIMCRUT) or a deferred payment gift annuity are not qualified charitable life income plans.

The remainder trust with the remainder interest of the life income plan must be distributed to a qualified nonprofit. For a charitable gift annuity, it must have a 5% or higher payout rate and be qualified under Section 501(m)(5)(B).

The payments from the CRT or CGA must either benefit the IRA owner, or the IRA owner and spouse. All payments from a charitable remainder trust will be ordinary income. Because there is no investment in the contract under Section 72(c), all payouts from a gift annuity will also be ordinary income.

The bill permits an inflation adjustment starting in 2024. The $100,000 limit for current IRA rollover gifts and the $50,000 one-time limit for gifts to a life income plan will be adjusted for inflation. The new numbers will be rounded to the nearest thousand dollars.

Editor's Note: This new one-time QCD option will be used primarily for IRA-to-gift annuity rollovers. It is unlikely that donors or trustees will fund or accept a $50,000 charitable remainder unitrust or annuity trust. At a future date, there may be an expanded rollover limit that enables IRA rollovers to charitable remainder trusts

Secure Act 2.0 Enhances Retirement Benefits

The Secure Act 2.0 was included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 (H.R. 2617). It includes many changes that are intended to enhance and facilitate retirement benefits.

Since passage of the original Secure Act in 2019, both House and Senate Members have been working on further changes to encourage saving for retirement. The Secure Act 2.0 will increase the required minimum distribution age, allow a larger catch-up contribution limit, facilitate rolling some Section 529 plans into Roth IRAs and generally expand access to retirement plans for moderate and lower-income employees.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. He stated, "Americans deserve dignified retirements after decades of hard work, and our bill is an important step forward."

Brian Graff, CEO of the American Retirement Association stated, "We are grateful to the many members of Congress and staff who worked tirelessly to get Secure 2.0 included in the omnibus legislation…This important legislation will enhance the retirement security of tens of millions of American workers – and for many of them, give them the opportunity for the first time to begin saving."

Paul Richman from the Insured Retirement Institute, noted, "Including Secure 2.0 retirement provisions in the last major legislation of the year means that Congress is poised to help millions more workers and retirees with significant improvements to the nation's private retirement system."

1. Required Minimum Distribution Age — Starting in 2023, the age for required minimum distributions (RMDs) will increase from 72 to 73. The RMD age will increase again in 2033 to age 75. Individuals who are currently taking RMDs will continue to take a distribution each year based on their age.

2. Catch-Up Contributions — Individuals who are age 50 and older are permitted to make an additional catch-up contribution. During 2023, the catch-up contribution for retirement plan participants over age 50 is $7,500. However, starting in 2025 individuals who are 60, 61, 62 or 63 will be permitted to make a larger catch-up contribution. The new amount will be the greater of $10,000 or 150% of the catch-up limit for that year, indexed for inflation.

3. Matching Contributions for Student Loan Payments — Many younger workers have substantial student loans and may not be able to make both their student loan payments and fund a retirement plan. Employers will be permitted to match the student loan payments with a contribution to a Section 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plan.

4. Roth 401(k) Plans Exempt from RMDs — The Roth IRA is currently exempted from distributions even if the owner has reached the normal RMD age. Starting in 2024, Roth 401(k) plans also will be exempted from RMDs. With no required distributions, Roth IRA and 401(k) plans will be permitted to increase in value during the life of the owner.

5. Required Minimum Distribution Penalty — The existing penalty for failing to take a required minimum distribution is 50%. Starting in 2023, this penalty will be reduced to 25%. If the plan participant corrects the failure in a timely manner, the excise tax on the penalty is reduced further to 10%.

6. Section 529 Plans Rollover to Roth IRAs — A Section 529 plan is frequently used for college savings. If the 529 plan is no longer required because the beneficiary has completed his or her education, then up to $35,000 of that plan may be rolled over into a Roth IRA for the benefit of that individual.

7. Qualified Charitable Distributions Enhanced — The IRA charitable rollover or qualified charitable distribution (QCD) limit of $100,000 for 2023 will be indexed for inflation starting in 2024. Individuals age 70½ or older are permitted to make distributions from their IRA directly to charity and avoid recognition of income. The act expands the QCD by allowing a one-time transfer of up to $50,000 to a charitable remainder annuity trust, a charitable remainder unitrust or an immediate charitable gift annuity.

8. Roth Catch-Up Contributions — Individuals age 50 and above are permitted to make a catch-up contribution to a retirement plan. Starting in 2024, individuals who have incomes over $145,000 will be required to transfer their catch-up contribution to a Roth IRA. This will require them to pay tax on the catch-up contribution, but the future distributions from the Roth account will be tax free.

Sen. Wyden concluded, "We are making significant progress for millions of low- and middle-income workers, who are far less likely to have retirement savings. These workers often have demanding, physical jobs, and depend solely on their Social Security income. For the first time, millions more workers would access resources for retirement and see federal retirement contributions year after year, even if they have no tax liability. These are reforms that will make a meaningful difference for workers who have struggled to save."

Tips for Being a Long-Distance Caregiver

What tips do you recommend for long-distance caregivers? I help take care of my 86-year-old parent who lives independently about 150 miles from me.

Providing care and support for an aging parent who lives far away can present a variety of challenges that can make the job difficult and stressful. Below are some tips and resources that may help.

Long-Distance Caregiving

There are a couple of options when it comes to monitoring and caring for an aging parent from afar. You can hire a professional to oversee your parent's needs, manage things yourself by building a support system, tapping into available resources, or utilizing technology devices that can help you keep an eye on your parent.

If your parent needs a lot of help, you should consider hiring a geriatric care manager. A geriatric care manager will give your parent a thorough assessment to identify their specific needs and will set up and care for them accordingly. Geriatric care managers can be a worthwhile expense, but it is typically between $100 and $250 per hour after an initial assessment of $150 to $750 and are not covered by Medicare. To find a geriatric care manager in your parent's area, search for a list of providers using your preferred online search engine or contact the nearest Area Agency on Aging by calling 800-677-1116.

Geriatric care managers can be a great option for those who require around the clock care. If, however, your parent only needs occasional help or if you cannot afford to use a care manager, here are some things you can do to help.

Create a care team: Put together a network of people (nearby friends, family, neighbors, clergy, etc.) who can check on your parent regularly and who you can call from time to time for occasional help. You can also put together a list of reliable services to call for household needs such as lawn care, handyman services, plumber, etc.

Tap local resources: Most communities offer a range of free or subsidized services that can help seniors with basic needs such as home delivered meals, transportation, senior companion services and more. Contact your nearby Area Aging Agency to find out what is available.

Use financial tools: If your parent needs help with financial chores, arrange direct deposit for income sources and set up automatic payments for utilities and other routine bills. You can also set up your parent's online banking service to allow you to be an authorized user, so you can pay bills and monitor your parent's account. If you need help, hire a daily money manager to help manage your parent's finances which may cost between $25 and $100 per hour.

Check essential documents: This is also a good time to make sure your parent has essential legal documents like: a will, a living will and health-care proxy, which allows you to make medical decisions on your parent's behalf if your parent becomes incapacitated and a durable power of attorney, which gives you similar legal authority for financial decisions, if needed.

If your parent does not have these documents prepared, now is the time to complete them. If they have been executed, make sure they are updated and know where they are located.

Hire in-home help: Depending on your parent's needs, you may need to hire a part-time home-care aide that can help with things like preparing meals, housekeeping or personal care. Costs can run anywhere from $12 up to $25 per hour. To find someone, search for home-care aide using your favorite online search engine.

Utilize technology: To help you keep track of your parent from afar, there are various technologies that can help. For example, there are medical alert systems, video camera monitors, wearable activity trackers, and electronic pill boxes that can notify you if your parent has taken their medications. There are also websites to help you coordinate your parent's care with members of your parent's care team.

For more tips, call the National Institute on Aging at 800-222-2225 and review their free booklet "Long-Distance Caregiving: Twenty Questions and Answers."


Published December 23, 2022

Property Tax Assistance Programs

I recently learned about a property tax relief program for homeowners and apparently, there are hundreds of these programs across the country that many are eligible for but do not know about. What can you tell me about this?

Residential property tax refund and credit programs exist in nearly every state, but unfortunately few people know about them. These programs can help retirees and many other Americans reduce their property taxes. Here is what you should know.

Rising Property Taxes

Property taxes are a major source of income for local governments. While they help fund key public services, they can be a financial burden for many homeowners, especially retirees who live on fixed incomes.

According to Attom Data Solutions, a real estate and property data provider, the average American household paid $3,785 in property taxes in 2021. This amount can vary widely depending on state tax rates and a home's estimated value. For example, New Jersey residents paid $9,476 per year on average in 2021, while West Virginia residents paid $901.

To help ease this tax burden, some states offer several property tax relief programs. Homeowners typically need to research what is available in the county or city of residence, determine eligibility and apply.

Relief Programs

Property tax-relief programs, sometimes called "exemptions", release eligible homeowners from paying some or potentially all of their property tax obligation. How long the exemption lasts can vary depending on where the homeowner lives and the reason for their application.

The tax-relief process varies by county, city or state. In general, certain eligibility requirements must be met, an application is submitted and documents are provided to support the request. Most programs will either reduce, waive or freeze property taxes. Programs often exist to benefit seniors, veterans, surviving spouses, disabled and low-income taxpayers.

There are some counties that also offer basic homestead exemptions to homeowners regardless of age or income. Others may provide exemptions to homeowners that have recently made energy-efficient improvements to their home.

Where to Look

The best way to learn about local property tax relief programs and their eligibility requirements is to visit the county, city or state website that collects the property tax. Most of these websites will provide applications and instructions, and host an application either online, by mail or at the local tax office.

There may be additional resources available online. Using buzz words such as "residential property tax relief programs" in your favorite search engine may return helpful results. There may also be property tax aid services in your areas, look for free programs. Be wary of services that require payment since the programs are free to apply for in every state.

Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living" book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization's official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.


Published December 16, 2022

Protect Yourself from Phishing Emails


During the holiday season, fraudsters are likely to send many phishing emails. Billions of phishing emails are sent each year because they work well for identity thieves. The average person receives a significant number of emails each day and may not take the time to examine an email. Fortunately, protecting yourself from emails is a learned skill and can be easily accomplished.

First, you should be alert and use sound judgement to check each email. Are you familiar with the sender? Is the content you would expect from that person? Do they regularly send information to you? These are good questions to ask. It is especially important to review the email if it claims to come from your bank, a certified financial planner (CFP) or certified public accountant (CPA). Many fraudsters have been successful by impersonating the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), another government agency or your credit card company. For example, you may be asked to click on a link to resolve an immediate problem with a charge on your credit card. These types of emails should immediately raise red flags and require further exploration before clicking any links or entering personal information.

Many phishing emails can generally be identified because of the abnormalities in the text. Emails from fraudsters that are overseas often have typographical errors. There may be names that are misspelled or do not fit the organization. Some emails may use a name that is similar to your bank, financial service company or your professional tax advisor, but it is not exactly correct. Phishing emails may claim to come from financial organizations you regularly work with but may lack the logo or other identifying information. If there is anything unusual about the email, it is much more likely that it is a phishing email.

A primary solution is to not click on a link, but to contact the sender directly, not as a reply to the suspicious email. For a bank or credit card issue, there is a public access phone number for the bank or a phone number listed on the reverse side of your credit or debit card. Call the official phone number for the bank or credit card company to discuss the claimed problem. You may be able to review the sender’s email address in the header to also verify you recognize it. However, by simply calling the claimed sender, you can confirm whether or not this email is legitimate. If you do know the claimed sender of the email, you might send a new email to the purported person to ask if the suspicious email address is a correct email.

You can quickly determine whether a link is legitimate to a bank, financial institution or other organization by hovering with your cursor over the link, but do not click on it. The hovering will allow you to review the address link. If it is a short link or strange email address, it is likely that the link is to a fraudster's website. Do not click on that link as doing so could load malware on your computer.

The holiday season is a prime time for fraudsters to try to collect access to your accounts and personal information. Scammers plan to steal your information and file a tax return in late January or early February so that their tax return arrives first at the IRS and the fraudulent refund will be sent to them.

Email is now a common fact of life, even for seniors. The Pew Research Organization estimates that 75% of individuals aged 75 and above now use email. Because fraudsters are becoming more clever each year, everyone needs to understand how to exercise best practices, common sense and basic exploration methods to find, identify and delete phishing emails.

Online Accounts

At any given time, the average American maintains between 30 and 50 online accounts. These may be with banks, financial institutions, utility companies, email providers, social media outlets, commercial shopping or travel sites and accounts unique to technology such as an account to purchase apps for a smartphone.

Modern estate plans should include an "ePlan" to manage online accounts and online data. There are four specific steps to creating an effective ePlan. These include compiling a list of each account along with an explanation of how each is used; developing a plan for storing electronic information; naming an executor to manage the accounts; and providing appropriate direction to your executor.

1. Compile a List of Accounts and How to Access Them

The first part of an effective ePlan is to gather information and to compile a list of your accounts together with information about the accounts. Your list should specify the username, password account number and a description of what is included in each account. Because passwords frequently change, you should be sure to keep this list up to date.

There are four major types of online accounts: personal, financial, business and social media. Examples of personal accounts include email accounts and those used in conjunction with photos, videos, music and apps for smartphones or tablets. The information associated with these accounts is typically backed up on a computer hard drive, a backup drive or cloud account.

Financial accounts might include savings and checking accounts, retirement accounts, utility accounts, and accounts related to travel and shopping. Increasingly, people are using electronic devices to bank online, including linking accounts for automatic payments, to manage retirement and investment accounts, and to shop online at sites such as Amazon, eBay, airlines and other companies. Online financial accounts also allow for the management of digital currency such as Bitcoin. In many cases, the estate executor will need the account holder’s username, password and account number to identify and access any online financial accounts and to ensure that they can be left to family.

Business related accounts could include intellectual property that is part of a website or blog, including written work, photos, videos and musical compositions and software. If you own business assets like these, be sure to discuss these specific assets with your attorney.

Examples of social media accounts are Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. These accounts may be valuable or sufficiently sentimental because they contain photos and comments that should be passed on to family. A good ePlan will instruct the executor how to dispose of these assets, such as whether the executor should copy the data from these accounts to share with family and whether to wind down and close these accounts.

2. Store and Protect Your Information

The second part of an effective ePlan is the development of a plan for storing information. This will involve saving the list that you compiled as well as backing up important data files and account information.

Because an ePlan account list contains sensitive information such as usernames and passwords, it is essential to maintain the security and confidentiality of this list. There are three basic options for securing an ePlan account list. First, this list could be handwritten and stored in a safe place. Second, it could be in electronic format such as a spreadsheet saved to a thumb drive. Extra security measures can be taken to password protect or encrypt the file or drive. Third, there are programs that manage, save and encrypt passwords. These programs allow people to connect multiple devices to a password management program and the program will keep the passwords up to date on each device. If you password protect a file, encrypt a drive or use a password management program, be sure to provide your executor or a loved one with the file password or encryption key or with access to one of your devices so your executor can access the password program.

For purposes of security, and in order to keep the list up to date, maintain a single list. Avoid saving the list on a computer in case of data loss or a data breach. Do not include this list in a will or living trust; these documents may become public. Save the list in a secure location such as in a locked, fireproof home safe or safety deposit box. Some states require that a safety deposit box cannot be opened after the owner passes away without the approval of the probate court. Ask your attorney if you live in one of these states. If you do, consider storing your list in a home safe.

There are several options for maintaining a backup of important electronic information such as pictures, videos, music and archived email. You can back up this information on your personal computer, in a cloud account or on an external backup drive, thumb drive or DVD, which can then be stored in a home safe or safety deposit box.

3. Select Your Digital Executor

After compiling a list and selecting a storage method, the third part of an ePlan will be the selection of a digital executor. Many states have passed laws that give access to online accounts to the executor of an estate. In some cases, however, state law may limit access if the executor does not have the password or an estate plan does not clearly grant powers to the executor to access these accounts. Accordingly, your estate plan should be explicit in the granting of authority with respect to online accounts, and the ePlan should provide the necessary passwords to the executor. Institutions that provide online account access may give the executor access upon a showing of appropriate authorization in the estate plan or, in some cases, may require an order from the probate court. For some accounts such as Bitcoin, the executor will need the password to access the account.

4. Provide Your Executor with "Digital Directions"

The fourth and final part of an ePlan includes a letter of instruction to the digital executor. This letter will tell the executor how to manage your online accounts and digital assets. It may also provide recommendations for the distribution of various accounts, assets, files and information to family. Information in personal accounts, such as photos and videos, can easily be duplicated. Accordingly, the letter may instruct the executor to produce copies of those files to share broadly with family. Assets in any financial accounts will be transferred to your chosen heirs according to your will, trust or beneficiary designation form, after which the financial institutions will close your accounts. A letter can also tell the executor how to manage social media accounts. Options for dealing with social media accounts include transferring account management to a loved one so that the account can remain active and serve as a memorial to the original account holder, or the account can simply be closed down.

Account Specific Information

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and other companies have adopted policies to address the situation when an account holder has passed away. These policies may allow an account holder to designate a "Legacy Contact" to manage the account; require specific documentation before a deceased person’s account can be closed, such as a copy of a death certificate, court order, notarized letter or obituary; or automatically close an account after an extended period of inactivity, such as three to twelve months. These policies are subject to change, so a digital executor should familiarize themselves with the policies of each account provider and may need to act quickly to preserve important and sentimental information for family and loved ones.

Protect Your Digital Assets

Digital estate planning is a new and rapidly changing field. By incorporating an ePlan into your estate plan, you can ensure that your executor will take the right steps to preserve and protect these accounts and that valuable and sentimental data can be passed on to family and loved ones.

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