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Financial Planning > Trusts and Estates > Estate Planning

Digital Estate Planning: How to Plan for Online Accounts

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What happens to email, usernames, passwords, banking information, social media and blogs when an individual dies? It’s a question most people haven’t considered, but should. Without proper planning and documentation, online information may become inaccessible and may eventually cease to exist.

Today, almost everyone has some type of online account, whether to pay monthly bills or for the convenience of storing cherished family photos and videos. Individuals are careful to make sure the passwords to these aspects of their life are protected and the access to these accounts is limited. This is good in most instances, but accounts with private and protected passwords can create major problems when the account holder dies and no one else has access to the passwords.

Many assume that it would be fairly easy for a family member or personal representative to gain access to online accounts after death, but this is usually not the case. Access depends on the service provider as to who owns the account when a person dies and how or if they want to release information. For instance, some internet service companies consider an account to be private property and will not hand over passwords or emails to the descendant’s family without legal action. Other companies may require a copy of both a death certificate and estate planning documents to provide access to an account.

To prepare for this, it is important financial advisors take the following steps to help individuals prevent obstacles and frustration for loved ones when trying to access online accounts and information.

Grant Access Within Estate Planning Documents

As an advisor, the next time you meet with your client to review their estate planning documents, discuss their intentions for any digital assets they may have.  If it’s their desire to share the information with others, determine if it’s appropriate to update the language in their planning documents to give lawful consent for service providers to disclose the contents of their online accounts to the appropriate people.

In most cases, newer trust documents have verbiage included that authorizes the release of digital account information to the appropriate person(s). From an advisor’s perspective, it’s important to go one step further and provide the necessary tools to clients to help them organize and structure their digital asset information within their estate plan. Once completed, this digital access map will provide ease for those needing to access the data upon the client’s passing or incapacitation.

Advise Clients to Prepare a Digital Assets Checklist

Clients should think through their account types and determine what is password restricted. In doing so, here are some common examples of digital assets they may consider sharing their online access to:

  • Computers
  • Email accounts
  • Social networking sites and blogs
  • Bank and financial accounts
  • Companies in which you have set up automatic bill-pay
  • Cell phones, personal digital assistants and other electronic devices
  • Online services (online storage, records, pictures, etc.)
  • Important contact information
  • Locations and access information to safes, safe-deposit boxes, alarms, etc.

The details on how to access these types of accounts should be documented and kept in a secure location. For clients that prefer paper records, they may choose to keep handwritten information with other printed materials like bank statements and estate planning documents. Other clients may be interested in storing their digital information on a portable flash drive or similar backup media. Another option would be to use an inexpensive and secure password management program such as Keeper to organize and store the information for them.  Solutions like Keeper serve as a vault for passwords and account information while providing great security features for protecting digital assets. Any of these solutions are good options for storing digital information, but of course, someone needs to know where it is and how to access it.

Know Your Client

Because the online world is growing rapidly and current laws around digital asset management are continuously changing, it’s important for advisors to know their clients to best assist them with their digital asset planning. As an advisor, you can assist your clients in tracking their assets and reviewing their estate plans on an ongoing basis to ensure they are aligned with their wishes as well as current laws. The time and tools you invest in bringing awareness and preparation to your clients through this process is invaluable.

What happens to one’s online identity after death is up to each person, but just like other aspects of life, it needs to be planned for. As an advisor, you can help your clients understand the realities of digital asset planning as well as help them prepare their estates for their digital afterlife.

Stacy Beekman is responsible for the day-to-day trust administration and fiduciary compliance of her clients at Greenleaf Trust. She has over 21 years in the financial services industry and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Grand Valley State University. Stacy is also a graduate of Cannon Trust School.


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