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The Social Security Administration and E-Signature Problems

Electronic signature laws during the COVID-19 pandemic are playing a more significant role than ever before. The laws outlining acceptable electronic transaction standards that have the same effect as paper and ink signatures are the state Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) and the federal Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E-SIGN).

The US Social Security Administration (SSA) is struggling to modernize its IT infrastructure to support the American people’s current and future workloads, including e-signature acceptance. There are significant and ever-increasing service requirements and data storage responsibilities. The data includes sensitive information, susceptible to hacking, on nearly every citizen in the US, whether living or deceased, including their medical and financial records. While the SSA encourages agency interaction through their various online services, the truth is the agency’s outdated and poorly integrated computer systems make modern methods of e-signature acceptance a problem.

What is an e-signature? It is quite simply a digital file or symbol that attaches to places on an electronic file or contract, guaranteeing a person’s intent to sign the file or contract. E-signing has different formats. A signer can type their name into a signature area; they can paste in a scanned version of the signer’s signature, click on the “I accept” button, or even employ cryptographic scrambling technology. The security of these e-signatures varies across the formats.

What is a digital signature? This type of signature is considered more sophisticated and secure than the e-signature counterpart. This form of signature uses digital identification to authenticate the signer, which then becomes electronically bound to the document using encryption. Programs such as DocuSign, SignNow, Adobe, and others, offer easy ways to create a digital signature securely.

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and four individual plaintiffs are suing the SSA for their refusal to accept electronic signatures. The advent of COVID-19 is precluding many Americans who have compromised immune systems from applying for disability benefits because their existing condition makes them especially vulnerable. The argument is that the safest way for these at-risk individuals to apply is to fill out an online application at home with an e-signature since leaving home or interacting with paper mail presents an avoidable danger.

In the case of Timothy Cole, currently being treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, he is unable to submit his application for disability benefits because he plans to hire an attorney to help him navigate the complicated application process. Why would hiring an attorney preclude the SSA from accepting an application for disability benefits? Ultimately Mr. Cole is unable to submit his application online because the attorney or other authorized representative must sign a paper copy of their client’s application. So even though it is allowable for Mr. Cole to e-sign his application, his attorney may not even though the SSA maintains an online application process where e-signatures are reportedly secure, accessible, and federally approved.

The lawsuit is also seeking that the court order the SSA to permit blind people to fill out their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) application online. The SSA explicitly disallows blind people from applying online for this benefit. The lawsuit further asks the court to require e-signature acceptance on paperwork when a current beneficiary is subject to a CDR or continuing disability review.

The president of the National Federation of the Blind Mark Riccobono states, “The Social Security Administration regularly interacts with hundreds of thousands of blind people and other consumers with disabilities. Yet policies like this one persist, although the SSA has both the authority and the capability to accept electronic signatures. It is both unlawful and unconscionable that this agency continues to place blind and disabled consumers at a severe disadvantage, especially during a life-threatening global pandemic. The government should innovate, not discriminate.”

Therein lies the disconnect of expected service with the SSA. While consumers are looking for innovation and ease of use, the SSA’s continued dependence on outdated technology creates a focus on the behemoth project to migrate to a relational database that can allow for hardware alternatives with greater performance and interoperability at a much lower cost. Beyond these hardware infrastructure updates, data modernization and consolidation, and application modernization must also experience updates to be user friendly. Until these updates are in place, the SSA can expect to contend with more lawsuits as e-signatures become a need rather than a want during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you have questions or would like to discuss your particular situation, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Avoid these 10 Common Estate Planning Mistakes


As a Personal Family Lawyer®, I see many of the same estate planning mistakes made time and again by people who either fail to plan properly or who use “do-it-yourself” estate planning websites or forms in an effort to save money.

Without professional guidance, this can cause more problems for your heirs and end up depleting estate assets by far more than what you could potentially “save” by doing it yourself online.

A qualified estate planning attorney or Personal Family Lawyer® can help you avoid these 10 common estate planning mistakes:

  1. Failure to leave any written documentation of your assets, including a list of your online accounts and passwords
  2. Failure to let family members know where to find important estate planning documents
  3. Failure to name a guardian for minor children or choosing a guardian who lives far away without planning for temporary, local guardianship (solved with a comprehensive Kids Protection Plan®)
  4. Failure to name recipients for your personal possessions
  5. Failure to designate beneficiaries for retirement and other financial accounts
  6. Failure to name secondary beneficiaries
  7. Failure to name alternative trustees or executors
  8. Failure to properly fund or title assets to any trusts you have established
  9. Failure to update your estate plan as life circumstances change
  10. Failure to create an estate plan of any kind and instead leaving it to the court system to decide how your assets will be distributed

If you’d like to learn more about how to avoid common estate planning mistakes that could cost your heirs dearly, call our office today to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk. We normally charge $750 for a Family Wealth Planning Session, but because this planning is so important, I’ve made space for the next two people who mention this article to have a complete planning session at no charge. Call today at 212-937-8420 and mention this article

Are You Leaving Your Retirement Account at Risk Due to Poor Planning?


You’ve spent your entire life building up your retirement account. It may even be the biggest asset you’ll leave behind for the people you love.

If that’s the case, you may want to consider creating a special trust designed specifically to receive your retirement account assets in the event of your death.

If you leave your retirement account to the people you love outright, simply by naming them as beneficiaries on your retirement account rather than through a special trust, here are the risks:

  1. Some studies indicate 80% of retirement account beneficiaries immediately liquidate the account and frivolously spend the assets (and on top of using the assets in ways you may not agree with, they also lose significant tax benefits for these assets you worked so hard to create);
  2. If your beneficiary is married and does not properly handle the retirement assets you leave behind, and then gets divorced, your hard-earned assets could end up in the hands of the future ex-spouse of your beneficiary;
  3. If you are in a second marriage situation with children from a prior marriage, you may be setting your spouse and children up for conflict after you are gone, due to the way you have planned (or not planned) for the passage of your retirement account.
  4. If your beneficiary is ever in a situation where he or she has creditors or may have to file bankruptcy, and you’ve left your retirement account to him or her without a special trust, your retirement account would go to satisfy those creditors first.

Here’s the good news, it’s not hard to protect your retirement account for your beneficiaries with the right planning. We use a variety of special trusts to ensure the retirement assets you’ve worked so hard to build up throughout your life are passed on to the people you love so they are totally protected from a future divorce, creditors, bankruptcy and so that they do not create conflict for your loved ones.

If you have a significant retirement account whose designated beneficiary  is your spouse or children, or even your regular revocable living trust, call or e-mail our office today to review your plan. We can help to protect your assets and ensure they are passed down exactly the way that you want.  We normally charge $950 for this review session, but we will waive that fee for the first three families to book an appointment with us and mention this article. Call us today at 212.937-8420 or e-mail me personally at to set up your appointment.

Did You Have The Talk?


Talking with Your Family About Your Estate Plan

Is it time to have “the talk” with your kids?  We’re not talking about a “birds and bees” talk but one that is equally important, perhaps more so.

Everyone has concerns about what will happen when they die.  Some people worry about their homes, cars, or money.  Others worry about their children.  Rare, however, is the person who actually wants to talk about these things with their families.

Opening these conversations with your family will be difficult, but nowhere near as difficult as it would be on your family in the absence of advance planning. Fortunately, there are steps you can take before the conversation – and during the conversation – to help it go more smoothly.

Preparation Is Key

As with many things in life, preparation is a key to success in these conversations.  First, when you choose important decision makers, make sure you match the skills of the person to the job. For example, the executor of a will must be able to gather assets, prepare paperwork, handle finances, and deal with potential family disputes.  It would be unwise to select an executor who lacks these capabilities.

Too often, people choose executors, trustees, guardians, and powers of attorney based on emotions or arbitrary factors, such as who is the oldest child or who might be offended if not chosen.  These are difficult, demanding jobs, and you need to choose people who can handle them. It also helps to talk these issues through with an experienced attorney or confidant in advance of making your selections.

Next, prepare your paperwork before your family meeting.  Work with your lawyer to make the best decisions possible, and commit them to writing.  This will help reduce any misunderstandings about your wishes.

Before the meeting with your family, consider the questions that may arise.  For example, if you are concerned that one child will be upset because you named another child executor, be ready to answer questions about why you made that decision.  It may be that the person you chose is an accountant and would be well-suited for the job, or it may be that you’re concerned about overburdening the other child.  Whatever the case, be prepared to offer your reasoning.  Your explanation will go a long way toward reducing any hard feelings and potential disputes after you’re gone.

Come Prepared for Business

Once you have your family together, it is important that you not only let them know what your decisions are, but also that it is important to you that they support you and each other.  Have copies of your documents available so your family can ask questions about them.

You should be prepared to answer potential questions.  And remember, this may be an uncomfortable topic of discussion for your family members.  If someone just can’t get onboard, remember that you are dealing with your life and your assets.  The ultimate decisions as to how you handle them are yours, and you can even terminate the meeting if necessary. Also, make sure your family knows that your decisions may change as time goes on.

Finally, remember the goal for this discussion is to provide your family with more than just a set of legal documents outlining your wishes.  By talking to them about your intentions you are helping them gain understanding, comfort, and even buy-in with your plan.

This article is a service of Varvara M. Gokea, Personal Family Lawyer, who believes in developing trusting relationships with families for life. That’s why I offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, where I can explain wills, trusts, Kids Protection Planning, and other alternatives to help identify the best strategies for you and your family. You can begin by calling my office today to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk because this planning is so important.

Legal Issues Worth Pondering Before Ride-Sharing

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