Do Unmarried Couples Need Estate Planning ?

A couple that has no intention of ever getting married should know that they won’t get the automatic rights and protections that legally wed spouses get, particularly when it comes to death. Therefore, unmarried couples must make a concerted effort to cover all the bases, says CNBC’s recent article entitled “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die.”

The number of unmarried couples who live together reached 18 million in 2016, a 29% increase from 14 million in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center. Among adults age 50 and older, the increase was 75% with roughly 4 million cohabiting in 2016, compared to 2.3 million in 2007.

These couples still face some key differences from their married counterparts. For example, there’s no filing federal taxes as a couple, and if an employer allows health insurance for a partner, the amount the company contributes is taxable to the employee, rather than being tax-free for a spouse.

End-of-life considerations also need attention. Unmarried couples can sign some legal documents that will dictate what happens, if one of them either becomes incapacitated or passes away, which is a type of estate plan.

If you die without a will or intestate, the state probate court will decide how your assets are distributed. A will by itself also won’t address everything. If you want to make sure your tax-advantaged retirement accounts — like your Roth IRA and 401(k) plans — go to your partner, make sure that individual is the designated beneficiary on those accounts. Even if your will says otherwise, whoever’s listed as the beneficiaries on those accounts will get the money. It’s the same for insurance policies and annuities.

If both partner’s names are on checking, savings or investment accounts, the account will pass directly to the surviving partner. However, for an account with only one partner’s name on it, ask the bank about the appropriate form to be completed, so the money is left directly to the surviving partner. This is what’s called a transfer-on-death or payable-on-death designation. Without this designation, the assets will end up in probate and distributed either in accordance with the will or intestacy state laws.

Regardless of how the mortgage is paid or whose name is on the loan, the person named on the deed is the owner. If the house in one partner’s name, it won’t automatically pass to the partner, as it would with a married couple (via joint tenancy with rights of survivorship). It would become part of the probate estate. To remedy this, you can retitle the home, so that both partners are listed as joint owners on the deed, “with rights of survivorship.” Each partner then equally owns the house and is entitled to assume full ownership upon the death of the other. Note that there could be other factors to consider before adding a partner’s name to an existing deed, such as expenses, tax implications and protection from potential creditors. Ask your estate planning or probate attorney before you make a change. A partner owning the house, could leave it to the surviving partner in the will. Remember, though, any asset passing via the will is subject to probate, which may lead to unforeseen issues.

In addition, a partner has no legal say in his or her partner’s medical treatment, if he or she is in a situation where they can’t make decisions for themselves. To give the partner that right, partners can grant each other a durable power of attorney over health care. This allows the partner to make important health-care decisions, if the one in the hospital is unable to do so. This is different from a living will, which states a person’s wishes if they are on life support or suffer from a terminal condition. This document helps guide the agent’s decision-making. If no one is named, medical personnel must follow the instructions in that document.

Likewise, partners may want to give each other durable power of attorney for finances. This would let them handle one another’s money, including accessing accounts as necessary, if the incapacitated partner could not do so.  If the partners have dependents, name a guardian for them in the will. Otherwise, that decision will be left to the courts.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 16, 2019) “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die”

 

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Why a Last Will Is the Foundation of an Estate Plan

An estate planning lawyer has many different tools to achieve clients’ estate planning goals. However, at the heart of any plan is the Last Will, also known as the “last will and testament.” Even people who are young or who have modest levels of assets should have a will—one that is legally valid and up to date. For parents of young children, this is especially important, says the article “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan” from the Sparta Independent. Why? Because in most states, a will is the only way that parents can name guardians for their children.

Having a will means that your estate will avoid being “intestate,” that is, having your assets distributed according to the laws of your state. With a will, you get to determine who is to receive your property. That includes your home, car, bank and investment accounts and any other assets, including those with sentimental value.

Without a will, your property will be distributed to your closest blood relatives, depending upon how closely related they are to you. Few individuals want to have the state making these decisions for their property. Most people would rather make these decisions for themselves.

Property can be left to anyone you choose—including a spouse, children, charities, a trust, other relatives, a college or university, or anyone you want. There are some limits imposed by law that you should know about: a spouse has certain rights to your property, and they cannot be reversed based on your will.

For parents of young children, the will is used to name a legal guardian for children. A personal guardian, who takes personal custody of the children, can be named, as well as a property guardian, who is in charge of the children’s assets. This can be the same person, but is often two different people. You may also want to ask your estate planning attorney about using trusts to fund children’s college educations.

The will is also a means of naming an executor. This is the person who acts as your legal representative after your death. This person will be in charge of carrying out all of your estate settlement tasks, so they need to be someone you trust, who is skilled with managing property and the many tasks that go into settling an estate. The executor must be approved by the probate court, before they can start taking action for you.

There are also taxes and expenses that need to be managed. Unless the will provides directions, these are determined by state law. To be sure that gifts you wanted to give to family and loved ones are not consumed by taxes, the will needs to indicate that taxes and expenses are to be paid from the residuary estate.

A will can be used to create a “testamentary trust,” which comes into existence when your will is probated. It has a trustee, beneficiaries and directions on how distributions should be made. The use of trusts is especially important, if you have young children who are not able to manage assets or property.

Note that any assets distributed through a will are subject to probate, the court-supervised process of administering and proving a will. Probate can be costly and time-consuming, and the records are available to the public, which means anyone can see them. Many people chose to distribute their assets through trusts to avoid having large assets pass through probate.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a will and the many different functions that the will plays in settling your estate. You’ll also want to explore planning for incapacity, which includes having a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Medical Directives. Estate planning attorneys also work on tax issues to minimize the taxes paid by the estate.

Reference: Sparta Independent (Dec. 19, 2019) “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan”

Suggested Key Terms: Last Will and Testament, Guardian, Executor, Trusts, Power of Attorney, Probate Court, Testamentary Trust, Estate Planning Attorney

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Power of attorney and advance directive – Start the New Year with Estate Planning To-Do’s

Power of attorney and advance directive – Families who wish their loved ones had not created an estate plan are far and few between. However, the number of families who have had to experience extra pain, unnecessary expenses and even family battles because of a lack of estate planning are many. While there are a number of aspects to an estate plan that take some time to accomplish, The Daily Sentinel recommends that readers tackle these tasks in the article “Consider These Items As Part of Your Year-End Plan.”

Review and update any beneficiary designations. This is one of the simplest parts of any estate plan to fix. Most people think that what’s in their will controls how all of their assets are distributed, but this is not true. Accounts with beneficiary designations—like life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and some bank accounts—are controlled by the beneficiary designation and not the will.

Proceeds from these assets are based on the instructions you have given to the institution, and not what your will or a trust directs. This is also true for real estate that is held in JTWROS (Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship) and any real property transferred through the use of a beneficiary deed. The start of a new year is the time to make sure that any assets with a beneficiary designation are aligned with your estate plan.

Take some time to speak with the people you have named as your agent, personal representative or successor trustee. These people will be managing all or a portion of your estate. Make sure they remember that they agreed to take on this responsibility. Make sure they have a copy of any relevant documents and ask if they have any questions.

Locate your original estate planning documents. When was the last time they were reviewed? New laws, and most recently the SECURE Act, may require a revision of many wills, especially if you own a large IRA. You’ll also want to let your executor know where your original will can be found. The probate court, which will review your will, prefers an original. A will can be probated without the original, but there will be more costs involved and it may require a few additional steps. Your will should be kept in a secure, fire and water-safe location. If you keep copies at home, make a note on the document as to where the original can be found.

Create an inventory of your online accounts and login data for each one. Most people open a new account practically every month, so keep track. That should include email, personal photos, social media and any financial accounts. This information also needs to be stored in a safe place. Your estate planning document file would be the logical place for this information but remember to update it when changing any information, like your password.

If you have a medical power of attorney and advance directive, ask your primary care physician if they have a means of keeping these documents, and explain how you wish the instructions on the documents to be carried out. If you don’t have these documents, make them part of your estate plan review process.

A cover letter to your executor and family that contains complete contact information for the various professionals—legal, financial, and medical—will be a help in the case of an unexpected event.

Remember that life is always changing, and the same estate plan that worked so well ten years ago, may be out of date now. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state who can help you create a plan to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Dec. 28, 2019) “Consider These Items As Part of Your Year-End Plan”

 

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From Gentle Persuasion to a No-Nonsense Approach, Talking About Estate Plans

Sometimes the first attempt is a flop. Imaging this exchange: “So, do you want to talk about what happens when you die?” Answer: “Nope.” That’s what can happen, but it doesn’t have to, says The Wall Street Journal’s recent article “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans.”

Many people have successfully begun this conversation with their aging parents. The gentle persuasion method is deemed to be the most successful. Treating elderly parents as adults, which they are, and asking about their fears and concerns is one way to start. Educating, not lecturing, is a respectful way to move the conversation forward.

Instead of asking a series of rapid-fire questions, provide information. One family assembled a notebook with articles about how to find an estate planning attorney, when people might need a trust, or why naming someone as power of attorney is so important.

Others begin by first talking about less important matters than bank accounts and bequests. Asking a parent for a list of utility companies with the account number, phone number and if they are paying bills online, their password, is an easy entry to thinking about next steps. Sometimes a gentle nudge, is all it takes to unlock the doors.

For some families, a more direct, less gentle approach gets the job done. That includes being willing to tell parents that not having an estate plan or not being willing to talk about their estate plan is going to lead to disaster for everyone. Warn them about taxes or remind them that the state will disburse all of their hard-earned assets, if they don’t have a plan in place.

One son tapped into his father’s strong dislike of paying taxes. He asked a tax attorney to figure out how much the family would have to pay in estate taxes, if there were no estate plan in place. It was an eye-opener, and the father became immediately receptive to sitting down with an estate planning attorney.

A daughter had tried repeatedly to get her father to speak with an estate planning attorney. His response was the same for several decades: he didn’t believe that his estate was big enough to warrant doing any kind of planning. One evening the daughter simply threw up her hands in frustration and told him, “Fine, if your favorite charity is the federal government, do nothing…but if you’d rather benefit the church or a university, do something and make your desires known.”

For months after seeing an estate attorney and putting a plan in place, he repeated the same phrase to her: “I had no idea we were worth so much.”

Between the extremes is a third option: letting someone else handle the conversation. Aging parents may be more receptive to listening to a trusted individual, who is of their same generation. One adult daughter contacted her wealthy mother’s estate planning attorney and financial advisor. The mother would not listen to the daughter, but she did listen to her estate planning attorney and her financial advisor, when they both reminded her that her estate plan had not been reviewed in years.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (December 16, 2019) “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans”

 

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What Happens If A Beneficiary Dies Before Receiving An Inheritance?
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What Happens If A Beneficiary Dies Before Receiving An Inheritance?

This beneficiary article is from California and deals with California Law. New York is different.

When the beneficiary of a deceased person’s probate estate or living trust dies during the course of administering the estate and before the full distribution of the inheritance has been made, things can get sticky.

Let’s say a mother dies and her estate is in the process of being probated when her son dies. The son’s estate can claim his inheritance, which it will in turn distribute to the beneficiaries of his estate, according to a recent article, “Beneficiary dies prior to receiving inheritance” from the Lake County Record-Bee.

This might require probating the deceased child’s estate. Whether or not probate is required, depends both on the value of the son’s own estate, which is increased by the amount of the unreceived inheritance. Another factor is whether all or some of the son’s estate passes to a surviving spouse or registered domestic partner.

In California, probate is required when the gross value of a deceased person’s estate exceeds $150,000 and passes to someone other than the decedent’s surviving spouse or registered domestic partner. Estate planning in California, as in other states, is important to lessen the impact of probate.

No probate is needed to transfer assets to a decedent’s surviving spouse or registered domestic partner. They are entitled to use a spousal property court petition to transfer title to real property and other assets held in the name of the deceased spouse into their partner’s name, as relevant.

If the estate is under $150,000, probate is not required and the estate can often be settled by affidavits, or, if the deceased owned real property worth more than $50,000, a small estate petition to confirm title to real and personal property. However, there are instances where probate of a small estate is necessary, because of the decedent’s debts or figuring out who is entitled to receive a portion of the estate.

This type of situation illustrates the benefits of holding assets in a living trust. This avoids probate, spousal property petitions and small estate petitions. Any time property is worth more than $50,000, it makes sense for the owner to hold title to the property in a trust.

Who will then, inherit the son’s estate? If he had a last will and testament, it is the governing document. If he had a revocable living trust, then he likely will also have a “pour-over will,” which “pours” everything over in the estate to the revocable living trust.

Either way, it’s likely the son’s heirs will need to be probated. With no will, the son’s heirs inherit according to the laws of intestate succession.

If the estate has been planned properly, even the complex situation described above will be more manageable. If neither the mother nor the son had an estate plan, it could take many years to unravel the estate. An estate planning attorney can create a plan that is designed with the laws of your state in mind and address many unexpected situations.

Reference: Lake County Record-Bee (December 7, 2019) “Beneficiary dies prior to receiving inheritance”

 

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Simple Mistakes to Avoid in your Estate Plan.

There’s so much information available today, good and bad, that it is not always easy to know which is which. Just as we should not perform surgery on ourselves, we are asking for problems if we try to manage our estate plan without professional help. That’s the good advice from the article “Examining three common mistakes of estate planning” from The News-Enterprise.

For one thing, the roles of power of attorney agent and executor are often confused. The power of attorney agent acts in accordance with a document that is used when a person is living. The power of attorney appointment is made by you for someone to act on your behalf, when you cannot do so. The power of attorney expires upon your death.

The executor is a person who you name to handle matters for your estate after your death, as instructed in your last will and testament. The executor is nominated by you but is not in effect, until that person is appointed through a court order. Therefore, the executor cannot act on your behalf, until you have died and a court has reviewed your will and appointed them to handle your estate.

Too many people opt for the easy way out, when it comes to estate planning. We hear that someone wants a “simple will.” This is planning based on a document, rather than planning for someone’s goals. Every estate plan needs to be prepared with the consideration of a person’s health, family relationships, and finances.

Many problems that arise in the probate process could have been prevented, had good estate planning been done.

Another mistake is not addressing change. This can lead to big problems while you are living and after you die. If you are healthy, that’s great—but you may not always enjoy good health. Your health and the health of your loved ones may change.

Family dynamics also change over time. If you only plan for your current circumstances, without planning for change, then you may need to make many updates to your will.

The other thing that will occur, is that your estate plan may fail. Be realistic, and work with your estate planning attorney to plan for the many changes that life brings. Plan for incapacity and for long-term care. Make sure that your documents include secondary beneficiaries, disability provisions, and successor fiduciaries.

Create an estate plan that works with today’s circumstances, but also anticipates what the future may bring.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Nov. 18, 2019) “Examining three common mistakes of estate planning”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Attorney, Probate, Last Will and Testament, Executor, Power of Attorney, Agent, Incapacity, Beneficiaries, Successor Fiduciaries

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Tips for Choosing a Fiduciary
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Tips for Choosing a Fiduciary

One of the important tasks in creating a complete estate plan is selecting people (or financial institutions) to represent you, in case of incapacity or death. Most people think of naming an executor, but there are many more roles, advises the article “What to consider when appointing a fiduciary?” from The Ledger.

Here are the most common roles that an estate planning attorney will ask you to select a fiduciary:

  • Executor or personal representative, who is named in your will and appointed by the court to administer your estate.
  • Agent-in-fact (under a durable power of attorney) who manages your financial affairs while you are living, if you are unable to do so.
  • Health care surrogate who makes health care decisions on your behalf while you are living, if you are incapacitated.
  • Trustee of a trust document; administers the trust that you have created.
  • Guardian: a person who makes health care and financial decisions on your behalf, if the court determines that other roles, like health care surrogate or agent-in-fact, are not sufficient.
  • Guardian for minor children: person(s) who make decisions for your children, if you are not able to because of death or a loss of capacity before the children reach adulthood.

The individuals or financial institutions who take on financial roles are considered fiduciaries or a fiduciary; that is, they have a legal duty to put your well-being first. Their responsibilities may include applying for government benefits, managing and invest your assets and income, deciding where you will live and working with your attorneys, financial advisors and accountants.

Many people name their spouse or eldest child to take on these roles. However, that’s not the only option. A few questions to consider before making this important decision include:

  • Does this person have the experience, skill and maturity to manage my financial affairs?
  • Does this person have the time to serve as a fiduciary?
  • Would this person make the same health care decisions that I would make?
  • Can this person make a difficult decision for my health care?
  • Does this person live near enough to arrive quickly, if necessary?
  • How old is this person, and will they be living when I may need them?
  • What kind of response will my family have to this person being named?
  • Are my assets substantial enough to require a financial institution or accountant to manage?

These are just a few of the questions to consider when choosing a fiduciary or health care agents in your estate plan. Speak with your estate planning attorney to help determine the best decision for you and your family.

Reference: The Ledger (Oct. 16, 2019) “What to consider when appointing a fiduciary?”

 

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Healthcare Directive -When Can Parent Legally Make an End-Of-Life Decision?

Healthcare Directive – Twenty-one-year-old Damaire was brought to Erie County Medical Center in the early morning hours. Damaire’s father was told that the person found Gordon on the side of the road, wrapped in a blanket and dropped him off at the hospital.

He was brain dead. He had no gunshot or stab wounds, and there were no signs of blunt-force trauma.

“I thought I would be seeing my son hurt some type of way that was very bad,” said Gordon’s father Mister Sommerville. “But, when I got there I saw my son had no trauma…and they can’t explain to me why he’s lifeless.”

Sommerville was told by his son’s mother Regina Gordon-Sayles that their boy was brain-dead at the hospital.

WKBW’s recent article, “A man was found brain-dead, but neither parent could legally make an end-of-life decision” reports that Gordon-Sayles said that she was a single mother of five and said that Sommerville had not been involved in Damaire’s life. However, he became very involved, when it came time to make a decision about his passing.

Damaire’s mother was set to remove her son off the respirator, but his father refused to consent.

“I was so confused about why I needed another consent,” said Gordon-Sayles.

The problem is that neither parent could give legal consent to take their son off life support, because Damaire hadn’t designated either parent as his healthcare directive. Under Article 81 of the New York State Mental Hygiene Law, the matter would have to go to a judge, who would start the process to appoint the best person to handle end-of-life decisions.

A medical power of attorney, also called an “Healthcare Directive” or “Health Care Proxy,” is a document that allows a person to provide someone with the authority to address health care decisions on their behalf, if they’re not able to do so themselves.

Unfortunately, these situations occur more frequently than we would wish. Making a bad situation more heartbreaking is traumatic for the family.

The situation is a matter of liability for the hospital. Every person has the right to due process, when it comes to making decisions for themselves, even in death. However, if that person can’t make a decision for herself, a judge must intervene and appoint an appropriate party.

Damaire’s father didn’t like the care his son was getting at ECMC and wanted more of an investigation into why the young man was in a brain-dead state, when doctors found only marijuana in his system. Doctors told both parents that they were restricted in the type of drugs for which they could screen, without an autopsy.

Damaire’s case went before a judge to appoint a proxy. The judge decided to continue his investigation into the case and didn’t take any action for more than a week. Damaire’s heart stopped beating the next day. His mom said a friend of his told her the truth about what happened to him, days later.

“He got ahold of some fentanyl, and I don’t know if my baby was laced…I don’t know if he took it himself, but it had something to do with fentanyl.”

“I was told when it happened, my son went into attack mode, he dropped, and they put him on the porch because they didn’t want to be charged with it.”

An Estate Planning Attorney can help you decide.

Reference: WKBW (November 5, 2019) “A man was found brain-dead, but neither parent could legally make an end-of-life decision”

 

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Do I Need POD Account for my Checking Account?

When you open up most investment accounts, you’ll be asked to designate a beneficiary. This is an individual who you name to benefit from the account when you pass away. Does this include checking accounts?

Investopedia’s recent article asks “Do Checking Accounts Have Beneficiaries?” The article explains that unlike other accounts, banks don’t require checking account holders to name beneficiaries. However, even though they’re not needed, you should consider naming beneficiaries for your bank accounts, if you want to protect your assets.

Banks usually offer their customers transfer-on-death POD account. This type of account directs the bank to transfer the customer’s money to the beneficiary. The money in a POD account usually becomes part of a person’s estate when they die but is not included in probate, when the account holder dies.

To claim the money, the beneficiary just has to present herself at the bank, prove her identity and show a certified copy of the account holder’s death certificate.

You should note that if you are married and have a checking account converted into a POD account and live in a community property state, your spouse automatically will be entitled to half the money they contributed during the marriage—despite the fact that another beneficiary is named after the account holder passes away. Spouses in non-community property states have a right to dispute the distribution of the funds in probate court.

If you don’t have the option of a POD account, you could name a joint account holder on your checking account. This could be a spouse or a child. You can simply have your bank add another name on the account. Be sure to take that person with you, because they’ll have to sign all their paperwork.

An advantage of having a joint account holder is that there’s no need to name a beneficiary, because that person’s name is already on the account. He or she will have access and complete control over the balance. However, a big disadvantage is that you have to share the account with that person, who may be financially irresponsible and leave you in a bind.

Remember, even though you may name a beneficiary or name a joint account holder, you should still draft a will or trust. Speak with a qualified estate planning attorney to make sure about all your affairs, even if your accounts already have beneficiaries.

Reference: Investopedia (August 4, 2019) “Do Checking Accounts Have Beneficiaries?”

 

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What Will New Acts of Congress Mean for Stretch IRA s?
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What Will New Acts of Congress Mean for Stretch IRA s?

The SECURE and RESA acts are currently being considered in Congress. These acts may impact stretch IRA s. A stretch IRA is an estate planning strategy that extends the tax-deferred condition of an inherited IRA, when it is passed to a non-spouse beneficiary. This strategy lets the account continue tax-deferred growth over a long period of time.

If a parent doesn’t need her Required Minimum Distributions, does it make sense to do a gradual Roth IRA conversion and use the RMDs to pay taxes on the conversion? Or should the parent invest the RMDs in a brokerage account?

There are several options in this situation, according to nj.com’s recent article, “With Stretch IRAs on the way out, how can I plan for my children’s inheritance?”

Congress is considering legislation with the SECURE and RESA Acts, that would eliminate the ability of children to create a stretch IRA, one that would let them to stretch distributions from the inherited IRA over their lifetimes.

Under the proposed SECURE and RESA Acts under consideration, the maximum deferral period will be 10 years. If the beneficiary is a minor, the period would be 10 years or age 21.

The best planning strategy for a parent would depend on her overall finances and what she wants for her children’s inheritance.

The conversion to a Roth may be a good planning move, depending on her tax bracket. Putting the money in a brokerage account is also an option.

A parent may also want to think about using the RMD proceeds to purchase a life insurance policy held by an irrevocable trust for the benefit of her children.

It’s best to contact an experienced estate planning attorney, so he or she can review the details of the parent’s finances and help her choose the best options for her situation.

Reference: nj.com (October 15, 2019) “With Stretch IRAs on the way out, how can I plan for my children’s inheritance?”

 

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