Estate Planning in the Digital Age
Estate planning no longer entails the simple execution of a will and powers of attorney for health care and property. Because we have become increasingly reliant on the internet to communicate with each other and take care of personal business, like banking and paying bills, additional steps have to be taken as we plan our estates.
Create a Digital Inventory
Years ago, when someone died, the family or executor’s attorney would sort through the decedent’s files and mail to create a list of accounts that needed to be dealt with and bills to be paid. However, almost all businesses, from bank and brokerage houses to credit card companies and utility companies, have encouraged customers to go paperless.
Think about all the business that you take care of over the internet and for which you don’t receive paper statements. Could your loved ones access these accounts if you became incapacitated or if you died? Would they even know they exist? To prevent additional burden if something were to happen to you, make a detailed list of all your online accounts and how to access them. Develop a comprehensive list, including the account name and number, purposes for the account, user name and password for every account. This list will include your email accounts, bills you pay online, credit cards and financial accounts, including bank accounts, IRAs and 401(k)s, and mutual fund accounts. You should also list websites and blogs that you maintain as well as social media accounts, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Obviously, the list needs to be given to someone you trust or placed somewhere that can easily be found in the event you cannot provide the list yourself or if you have died.
Finally, don’t forget your devices. Make a list of all your devices, including your smartphones, tablets, laptops and personal computers, and make sure someone knows where to find them and how to access them.
Consider an Online Storage Account
In the last few years, digital planning services have been established that allow paying subscribers to store all of their estate planning documents and information online. Many of these services allow paying subscribers to upload wills, trusts, advance health care directives and powers of attorney as well as storage of passwords to financial and other accounts. Many of these online services also provide a space for the subscribers to give instructions for their funerals, information about handling their pets and other final instructions. Most of these sites also allow the subscriber to designate a proxy who can access the storage vault and under what circumstances it can be accessed.
You will also want to include instructions for the websites and blogs you maintained and for your social media accounts, including whether these should be maintained and by whom. Give specific instructions if you maintain sensitive information in these accounts that should be kept secret from some family members or friends.
Keep in mind that these online services are businesses, and you should carefully research them, including how long they have been in business, how secure your information will be and what happens to your information if they go out of business. Of course, the use of such a service, while convenient, should not be a substitute for the advice of your estate planning attorney.
Help Your Loved Ones
If something happened to you, after a long effort, it might be possible to eventually pull together your financial accounts and other digital accounts. The far simpler approach would be to make sure that you plan ahead and create a plan, which would include your digital inventory that will allow your digital assets to be efficiently inventoried and handled according to your wishes.