Released: June 18, 2015
Digital Estate Planning Issue - Spring 2015
Download: Digital Estate Planning Issue - Spring 2015 (spring_2015_digital_estate_planning.pdf)
Table of Contents
- Services help you plan for disposition of online accounts after death
- A fitting end for the cyber business of the deceased
- Privacy vs. access for the online life of the dead
- What do you want to do with your digital assets?
- Digital afterlife policies of popular websites
- Tales from the crypt: Postmortem messaging
- About Consumer Action
Services help you plan for disposition of online accounts after death
By Alegra Howard
While thinking about death or disability isn’t pleasant, planning your estate is necessary. In this era, your estate will likely include online accounts and other elements of cyberlife, such as social media, streaming services, etc.
Financial professionals recommend creating a digital estate, or digital legacy, plan, to have your final instructions and personal documents in one place for your loved ones to access when the time comes. Leaving your “digital assets” out of your estate plan may prove burdensome to your survivors and make an already stressful time even more difficult.
View Consumer Action's Digital Estate Planning Guide (PDF).
Digital assets include your online accounts and mobile apps for banking, email, social media, video and photo sharing, gaming, personal websites, blogs and more. With so many of us conducting our personal business on the Web, it’s no surprise that a new industry has sprouted up to help us manage our online life after we die.
There are a growing number of companies that will help you plan your own digital legacy and sites to help you document your digital estate. Consumer Action surveyed 20 digital estate planning companies that help consumers plan how others may access their online accounts after their death. Some of these services deliver a personalized message to your contacts after your death, and a couple of them help survivors locate your accounts if you haven’t left the information for them.
The 20 digital estate planning companies we surveyed between Feb. 16 and May 4 of this year offer one or more of the following services:
Digital estate planning: These companies provide the guidance needed to compile and organize your digital assets, including any financial or personal accounts that you have online (such as bank accounts), stored media files (photos, videos, mp3s and e-books), rewards programs and social media profiles. Users receive step-by-step instructions on how to complete hard copy templates or web forms in order to leave detailed instructions for survivors. These plans allow you to specify what online account information should be shared or deleted and who, if anyone, will be granted access. The companies safely store essential account login information so survivors can access the accounts after death.
Sixteen companies we surveyed offer digital estate planning: Afternote, AfterSteps, BestBequest, Cirrus Legacy, Estate Assist, Eterniam, Everplans, GEN-ARC, Knotify.me, OrganizeMyAffairs.com, PassingBye, Perpetu, Principled Heart, SecureSafe, The Digital Undertakers and The DocSafe.
Digital locker: Thirteen companies provide “cloud” storage where users can upload personal or financial documents, images and video files for safekeeping in their account: AfterSteps, BestBequest, Cirrus Legacy, DocuBank, Estate Assist, Eterniam, Everplans, GEN-ARC, Knotify.me, PassingBye, Principled Heart, SecureSafe and The DocSafe. Data storage ranges from 50MB for free to 100 GB for paid accounts. (See Consumer Action’s Digital Estate Planning Guide (PDF) for storage details and costs.)
Postmortem messaging: Users can create a personal, final message and have it sent to whomever they designate after death. With some services, the user can pre-schedule a send date for the final message. Others require confirmation of a user’s death to trigger delivery of the message. Seven companies offer this service: Afternote, BestBequest, Deathswitch, Knotify.me, PassingBye, Perpetu and Vuture.
Sites Knotify.me and Vuture require account users to choose a date and time when their account messages and details will be sent via email to designated recipients. However, any user who can’t predict with reasonable certainty his or her date of death—and how many people can?—runs the risk of having the messages delivered either before they die (unless they continually change the send date) or long after their death.
Digital assets locator: These services advise family members or executors who need help locating a deceased family member’s online accounts (for social media sites, banking and finance accounts, email, mobile applications and streaming subscriptions, for example) and offline accounts (for banking, insurance, utilities, memberships, etc.). While these companies cannot access information in a deceased user’s accounts, they can point you in the right direction to find them. Using the decedent’s personal information (name, mailing address, phone numbers and email addresses), accounts may turn up for some of the most popular social media sites, financial companies, apps and streaming services.
Once accounts have been located, next-of-kin will need to follow the policies of each provider to access the account. Most companies require proof of an accountholder’s death. Even with proof, not all companies will hand over access to the online account’s content. Some may close the account to protect the accountholder’s privacy (LinkedIn, Match.com, PayPal, Twitter and Yahoo), while others will offer to replace the account with an online memorial (Facebook and Instagram). (See Digital afterlife policies of popular websites for more information.)
Two companies offer account location services: The Digital Undertakers and WebCease.
Access and security
Most digital legacy planning companies require users to create an account to begin their digital estate planning, which includes instructions regarding digital assets, contact information and beneficiaries. BestBequest and SecureSafe’s security verification systems require users to enter two different passwords to access their data.
All but three companies (17) noted that they encrypt accountholder data stored on their sites. WebCease, The Digital Undertakers and OrganizeMyAffairs.com do not offer encryption because they do not store information online. Instead, they provide digital or hard copy publications to aid in creating a digital legacy plan.
Nine sites tout bank-level encryption: AfterSteps, BestBequest, Estate Assist, Eterniam, Everplans, GEN-ARC, PassingBye, Principled Heart and SecureSafe. Estate Assist offers a $1 million guarantee that users’ data won’t suffer a security breach due to “malicious activity.”
Digital legacy service providers usually require confirmation of death, and may insist that beneficiaries provide verification codes (SecureSafe, PassingBye and Perpetu) before granting access to your digital estate plan. Beneficiaries are also called account “trustees,” “verifiers,” “guardians,” “executors,” “deputies,” “next-of-kin,” “contacts” and “heirs.”
One service, Principled Heart, requires that three previously chosen “validators” confirm your death prior to access. Afternote, AfterSteps and BestBequest require that the majority of your assigned beneficiaries confirm your death before they will provide access.
One company that offers a final personal message to be delivered upon your death relies on you to confirm your status. Deathswitch sends repeated prompts asking that you notify the site that you are still alive. Users decide how frequently they want Deathswitch to check on them and how long they want the site to wait for a response. Once the service’s prompts go unanswered for the specified time, your pre-designated message(s) are delivered to your chosen recipients.
Time limits on access
The amount of time your beneficiaries will have access to your digital account content after you die (without paying a subscription fee) varies from three months (Afternote) to two years (BestBequest). Exceptions: Estate Assist intends to store your information indefinitely so that family members with login access can log in free forever. GEN-ARC will store users’ data for up to 20 years after death when a lifetime membership is purchased.
What about the information you want to keep track of but don’t want shared? Perhaps you’d like to keep a few skeletons in your closet. Four surveyed websites explicitly note that accountholders can permanently delete certain assets that they don’t want shared upon their death by marking them “Secret” or “Private.” These are Eterniam, PassingBye, Cirrus Legacy and Estate Assist.
Eight surveyed companies offer their services (or part of their services) free of charge, including Afternote, Cirrus Legacy, Deathswitch, Everplans, Knotify.me, Perpetu, SecureSafe and Vuture.
Four companies offer one- or two-month free trials for those looking to test the service, including Estate Assist, Eterniam, PassingBye and Principled Heart. Other companies allow users to pay for subscriptions on a month-to-month, annual or lifetime basis. Monthly subscription fees ranged from $1.70 (SecureSafe) to $14.99 (BestBequest). Annual subscription fees ranged from $10 (Perpetu) to $99.99 (GEN-ARC). One-time or lifetime subscription fees ranged from $99 (Perpetu) to a whopping $499.95 (GEN-ARC). Higher subscription fees were charged to cover additional online storage space and customer service assistance in uploading documents, providing preservation advice and archiving photos and videos.
We found many of these companies helpful, if only in increasing awareness of the importance of gathering your digital assets and instructing loved ones on how to handle your online accounts after you die, or in finding a system that will erase them for you, like Eterniam, PassingBye, Cirrus Legacy and Estate Assist.
Note: It is unclear if any of these companies will be in business by the time you die. Three companies on our initial review list were no longer operating or had merged over the course of our research from Feb. 16 through May 4, 2015.
BestBequest states that the company prepays some of its third-party contracts that help run the site to ensure its service’s longevity, and Estate Assist explains that while they hope to be able to make users’ accounts available to loved ones indefinitely, the company will provide at least 90 days notice should they ever be forced to close. The founders of Everplans have promised that users will be able to access their estate plans for at least the next 50 years, regardless if the company is sold.
It’s crucial to keep contact information updated since many of these services rely on up-to-date contact information for users and their beneficiaries. Principled Heart’s service sends annual notifications to its customers confirming that contact information is still accurate.
If you purchase a digital estate planning service that helps you create a hard-copy planning document, make sure you store it in a secure place where your survivors will be able to find it.
Don’t risk fraud and identity theft by leaving password lists on shared computers or out in the open where others could access the information.
A fitting end for the cyber business of the deceased
By Ruth Susswein
Before our loved ones die, many of us don’t give much thought to how to wrap up the deceased’s personal business. Nowadays, our increasing involvement online complicates matters even further. So what do you do if your mother passes away without a plan to deal with her digital estate?
For starters, without clear written authorization as the estate executor, or representative, it’s unlikely you will be able to access online accounts after someone dies, even if that person is a minor. To protect the account owner’s privacy, the fine print of website user agreements often prohibits you from accessing another person’s online accounts.
The suicide of a 21-year-old Wisconsin man pitted his parents against Facebook (and Google) for access to their son’s online accounts. Through his online activity, they hoped to find answers to why he took his own life. The social media companies fought to maintain their commitment to protect users’ privacy. The Wisconsin court ruled that, as their son’s heirs, the parents were entitled to access his assets—including his digital ones.
Only a handful of states have laws that address digital assets (Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Virginia). State laws vary as to what types of online accounts (email, social media, cloud storage, etc.) are covered. Delaware is the only state that provides heirs with full access to digital assets. Virginia’s law focuses on access to minors’ accounts. (See Privacy vs. access for the online life of the dead.)
Some online companies allow users to designate someone to manage their accounts when they die. Facebook allows you to designate a “legacy contact,” to either create a memorialized profile page or have your account deleted.
Google allows users to select another person as their “inactive account manager.”
Other social media sites give family members the ability to delete an account, but will not provide access to the account. LinkedIn, Twitter and Yahoo will let you deactivate a loved one’s account, with proof of death, but will not open up the account to you.
There are companies that will help you create a plan for your digital estate. (For details on these services, see Consumer Action’s Digital Estate Planning Guide.)
If you are likely to be the person responsible for a parent or other’s affairs after they pass away, the time to prepare is now. Gather login and password information and store it safely. At a minimum, know where account names, numbers (if any), usernames and passwords are stored for when the time comes. Discuss your parents’ preferences and try to gather as much detail as possible to be able to judge which digital assets they would like to let you access and which they’d prefer to have deleted.
Survivors should start by making a list of digital accounts you know of, which could include email, social media and photo sharing sites, frequent flier programs, electronic health records, online bill pay and banking, etc. “Google” the deceased’s name to see if any accounts pop up.
If the deceased gave you access to his or her email account, don’t close it too quickly, as it may lead you to other accounts. Some companies will send regular emails that could provide valuable information regarding automated payments or other account activity.
To access or close accounts, you may be asked to provide a death certificate, ID and proof of your authority (a will or a power of attorney).
While company policies vary, asking to close an account generally requires less effort than asking for access to its contents. Consider which accounts might be closed without reviewing each item and which may have sentimental or monetary value. Microsoft deletes accounts after about one year of inactivity, so don’t wait too long if you are seeking access.
Privacy vs. access for the online life of the dead
By Linda Sherry
While questions about digital life after death have been bubbling up since people’s love affair with the Internet began two decades ago, the discussion has taken on new life as state legislators adopt laws, private companies create services and tools to help people manage their digital estates, and journalists write about the difficulty in accessing the online accounts of departed loved ones.
According to Alethea Lange of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), who has studied digital legacy issues, “Federal law is silent on the question of access after death, outside of a few general restrictions set forth in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) that may apply. In the absence of clear regulations, companies are playing it safe by defaulting to denying access or establishing rules in their Terms of Service. Although some, like Facebook and Google, have created tools to allow users to express their wishes.” (See Digital afterlife policies of popular websites for more about social media directives.)
Led by Delaware, which passed the first law giving executors a blanket right to access digital accounts, a slew of states are considering similar proposals. Privacy advocates feel some laws give too much away and don’t fully consider the privacy rights of the dead. Currently, there are two legislative models with “the most traction,” says Lange.
One proposal, written and promoted by the Uniform Law Commission (ULC), broadly supports allowing access to digital accounts by fiduciaries such as estate executors. (The ULC is comprised of lawyers who have been appointed by state governments to create non-partisan model laws for consideration and adoption by states.) The ULC model—the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act—treats digital assets like physical assets, and relies on the principles of “fiduciary duty” to ensure that the deceased’s legal representative can lawfully access the accounts. (A fiduciary duty is a legal duty to act solely in the best interests of the deceased.) However, critics say that this model could violate a deceased person’s privacy preferences because an executor gains access to one’s online accounts—whether or not the deceased would have wanted that.
Under Delaware law, digital assets such as email, cloud storage, social media accounts, health records, content licenses, databases and more are deemed a part of a person’s estate upon death, and the entities who control access to those assets are required to provide the legal executor with control over the deceased’s digital assets. The legislation also applies in cases where a person becomes incapacitated and his or her assets come under the control of a fiduciary.
Consumer Action joined the Center for Democracy and Technology and others in a letter to lawmakers opposing the ULC model law because of its overly broad access to others’ online accounts. (The ACLU and the Electronic Freedom Forum (EFF) also signed the letter.) The signers agree that one’s digital assets should never be disclosed by “default.” For one thing, it’s not just the deceased person’s privacy that’s at stake, but also the privacy of others—third parties—who have corresponded with or been part of the deceased person’s life. Instead, the group letter calls for the creation of “a system that allows and encourages individuals to control what happens to their records.”
NetChoice, a trade association that represents many technology companies, including Facebook and Google, has put forward an alternative proposal. The Privacy Expectation Afterlife and Choices Act (PEAC) model legislation provides that access to the deceased’s electronic communications is authorized only upon written request by the estate and by order of the probate court. The estate would hold companies harmless from liability for complying with a court’s order, and require compliance with copyright law and the deceased user’s privacy choices.
NetChoice conducted a poll in which 70 percent of those surveyed said that private online communications and photos should remain private after they die—unless there is prior consent for access by others, such as close family members or other relatives.
ECPA, a 1986 statute governing the privacy of electronic communications, doesn’t mention digital assets but does protect “stored communications” such as email from access by persons who don’t have the account owner’s consent. The law governs what types of information cloud service providers like Google and Yahoo can disclose to third parties. ECPA prohibits “unauthorized” use, disclosure or interception of electronic communications—so providers can voluntarily disclose the contents of an electronic communication with the consent of the owner or owner’s agent (who could be an executor).
Despite the fact that ECPA does not define “agent,” the ULC model bill allows an executor or personal representative of the deceased, without court approval, full access to a decedent’s estate.
To avoid misunderstandings, consider if you want anyone to access your digital remains. (For more advice, see A fitting end for the cyber business of the deceased.)
For more information on the law and digital assets, see:
- Alethea Lange’s blog post at CDT: Everybody Dies: What Is Your Digital Legacy?
- CDT’s Everybody Dies: How to Preserve Your Digital Legacy
- The Uniform Law Commission’s Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets
- NetChoice Model Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act
What do you want to do with your digital assets?
By Ruth Susswein
With the dizzying number of digital accounts we amass these days—from Facebook and Google to PayPal and Twitter, not to mention online banking, automated bill payments, photo collections and rewards programs—it’s important to think about what will happen to those accounts when you’re no longer living. These digital assets deserve your attention now.
You’ll want to have a plan so that you choose whether to entrust your digital details to someone (your digital account manager) or delete them.
Keep a record
Start your digital estate plan by making a list of all of your digital accounts and their logins (usernames and passwords).
Include email accounts, websites/blogs you own, social media sites, online stores, LinkedIn, frequent flier programs, your PayPal account, etc. (For more information on requirements for financial accounts, see Online or off, financial accounts follow clear rules.)
Also include the account name, account number (if any) and any other personalized information needed to access the account (such as security questions). Given the sensitive information, encrypt or password-protect the file.
Some recommend creating a separate document just for the passwords. If so, provide clear instructions on where your survivors can find it.
Create a detailed instruction sheet. This is where you explain which accounts you want closed and deleted and which accounts you’d like to share with others. Decide what specific information should always remain private and which details you want to share. For example, you may want to transfer your photos or a music collection to someone who would appreciate them, but not your emails. Clearly explain whether the information should be shared with all those interested, or limited to only those you name or the one person you designate as your digital account manager.
Some companies will allow you to tell them who else may access your data, while others won’t provide options. Apple iCloud accounts, for example, are not transferrable after you die. The account’s contents will be deleted upon notice of your death unless you and a loved one jointly use one iCloud account (and Apple ID). Twitter prohibits anyone from accessing your account but will delete it upon request with proof of death.
Some companies allow for digital directives. For example, Google enables users to plan their “digital afterlife” by using its Inactive Account Manager. The company allows users to select a trusted contact to access their Google accounts (Gmail, YouTube, Google+ Profiles, etc.) or have all data deleted after three to 18 months of inactivity.
Sometimes these services are available in instances other than death; you can appoint someone to handle your online accounts if you’re incapacitated. For example, Knotify.me allows you to arrange in advance to transfer your (encrypted) digital accounts to loved ones for free.
To review some of the many services now available to prepare your accounts for the digital afterlife, see Consumer Action’s Digital Estate Planning Guide.
Ensure your plan’s safety
Store your instruction sheet safely in your home in a locked fire- and flood-proof cabinet or safe, or with a trusted friend or relative. If you list such instructions in your will, do not include passwords or other highly private information, as the will becomes a public document after your death.
If you choose to store your passwords online, here are some sites that electronically encrypt and store passwords for free: LastPass, KeePass, 1Password, Dashlane and RoboForm. For contact information, see Consumer Action’s Digital Estate Planning Guide.
Who has access?
Designate a digital executor or online account manager. Choose someone who is responsible, trustworthy, organized and technically adept. (You won’t want to assign these duties to someone who’s uncomfortable online.)
You may want to select the same person who will handle your physical estate (your financial accounts, jewelry, real estate, etc.). You could choose an heir, a close friend or an attorney with no financial ties to you.
You can authorize your digital executor to delete accounts, disburse memorable items to family and friends, transfer data and notify people of your passing. The digital estate planning service Everplans says that, as a fairly new concept, digital executor designations are not legally binding in many states but can still provide a clear guide as to your wishes. Everplans offers sample language to use when naming a digital executor to manage and dispose of your digital assets.
The more planning for your digital estate you do now, the more likely it is that your online accounts and assets will be handled as you would choose.
Digital afterlife policies of popular websites
By Alegra Howard
Consumer Action reviewed policies at nine popular websites and mobile apps to find out what type of access they would provide your survivors after you die. All nine sites have a process that allows family members to close your account after confirmation of your death.
Two companies (Facebook and Instagram) allow survivors to turn your account into a memorial (granting limited or no access to your account’s contents). Microsoft and Google allow you to designate someone to access your account (including emails and contact lists). Here’s a glimpse of what we found.
Facebook. You can arrange in advance to have your account memorialized. The word “Remembering” would appear next to your name and others could share memories on your timeline after you die. You can designate a “legacy contact” to handle your account once it’s memorialized or to delete it permanently. Survivors of users who did not leave instructions before their death can request to have the account deleted. Facebook also recognizes the right of digital executors named in a will to manage a user’s Facebook profile once the accountholder’s death is confirmed. (Your private messages remain off limits).
Google. The site’s Inactive Account Manager feature allows you to leave instructions for the different Google services you use (including Gmail, Google+, Picasa and YouTube) should your account go inactive for three to 18 months. You can assign a trusted contact to download data from one or more of your accounts. If you don’t designate a trusted contact before death, your heirs may request that your account be closed. However, “Google does not guarantee that it will assist with the deletion of a deceased user’s account, nor does it guarantee that family members will be provided with the deceased user’s account content.”
Microsoft email. Once your death is confirmed, Microsoft’s Next of Kin process authorizes the release of Hotmail, Outlook, Live, WindowsLiveand MSN contents, including all of your emails and their attachments, your address book and Messenger contact list. Family members also may request that your account be closed.
Instagram. Accounts can be memorialized or permanently closed. Anyone can request that an Instagram account be memorialized, however only family members can request that an account be deleted. As with Facebook, memorialized accounts can only be seen by confirmed friends.
For more details on how your survivors can access your digital accounts for some popular websites, see Consumer Action’s Digital Estate Planning Guide.
Tales from the crypt: Postmortem messaging
Whether you want to let your family know you’ll always love them or you want to take the opportunity to finally tell off your boss, postmortem messaging companies specialize in helping you “speak from the grave.”
Procedures vary by site, but generally you sign up, compose your messages and designate the people you want to receive them.
Just so any reports of your death will not be exaggerated, be aware that some of the companies will send your messages if you don’t reply after several attempts to contact you. For example, Dead Man’s Switch says it “will email you 30, 45, and 52 days after you last showed signs of life. If you don’t respond to any of those emails, all your messages will be sent 60 days after your last check-in. Of course, you can have your switch postpone its activation...”
Postmortem messaging fees range from free to $20 a year. How’s that for having the last word?
Online or off, financial accounts follow clear rules
By Monica Steinisch
After a loved one becomes incapacitated or dies, it’s necessary to begin managing his or her affairs. This typically entails paying bills, and may include closing or transferring financial accounts. During this process you may wish to learn your rights when accessing another person’s financial accounts online. What are your options if you don’t have the login information? When planning your own estate, is there a way to balance privacy during your lifetime with easy accessibility after your death?
Virtually everyone expects that, after they die, survivors will access their financial accounts, disburse their assets, pay their taxes and close their estate. State laws governing access to financial accounts—whether physical or digital—are pretty clear-cut.
How you deal with a loved one’s bills and financial accounts depends on a variety of factors, including whether the account owner has died or is temporarily incapacitated, how the account is structured, what estate planning documents exist and whether or not you have the login (username and password) information for online accounts.
Incapacitation. If you are the spouse and joint owner of an account, you have the right to continue using it regardless of the other owner’s circumstances. If you are not a joint accountholder, you need a durable financial power of attorney (DFPOA) to grant you legal access to accounts when a loved one has become incapacitated. With a DFPOA, you have legal authority to act on that person’s behalf in the specific financial areas he or she has named (for example, paying expenses, collecting income, investing, filing taxes and operating their business). Banks and companies your loved one does business with must give you access if you present a valid DFPOA along with whatever other required paperwork (a death certificate, for example). This can be time-consuming, but it is far preferable to having to obtain a court order, which is what would be required without a DFPOA.
Even with a DFPOA, financial institutions typically will not give you the account owner’s login information, but you will gain access to the funds to pay bills and otherwise manage the accounts. You will be able to create your own login to manage bills and finances online, or simply access accounts via phone, mail or in person.
If you already have the username and password, technically you could access an account with or without a DFPOA, and without the account administrator knowing. This is not a good long-term solution. If the person will be incapacitated indefinitely, you should follow the proper steps to obtain legal account access. But if the account owner is expected to be able to manage his or her finances again soon, and there is some urgency to paying the bills, you might make the decision to do what is needed to make sure your loved one’s mortgage or rent remains current, their car doesn’t get repossessed and the power is still on when they return home.
If you do this, avoid all appearances of impropriety. You don’t want anyone to accuse you of acting irresponsibly or in your own best interests rather than those of the account owner.
Death. When a loved one dies, durable financial power of attorney terminates. You will need to provide proof to financial institutions, service providers, creditors, etc. that you have the legal right to access the decedent’s accounts in order to pay bills and wrap up his or her financial affairs. That proof typically consists of a death certificate and either “letters testamentary” (if there was a will and you were named executor) or “letters of administration” (if there was no will). In the absence of a will, a court can issue the letters of administration to a surviving spouse or next of kin.
If a financial account is held in a living trust, the “successor trustee” named in the trust document can present the death certificate and a copy of the trust to the financial institution to take over the account. As the surviving spouse, you can continue to access accounts that you owned jointly without having to submit any special paperwork.
If you have gone through the necessary legal steps and you have the login information, you can access the accounts online. Otherwise, the proof you provided should grant you the right to set up your own login or obtain the information you need to transfer or close the account.
Protect yourself by following the law on accessing financial accounts. If you don’t, you could be accused of wrongdoing by anyone else who has a stake in the estate. You may want to consult an estate attorney for guidance. For help finding an estate attorney, contact the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC).
Privacy vs. accessibility
Even if your loved ones have the legal right to access your accounts, they will be hobbled if they either don’t know what accounts you have or can’t get into your accounts because they don’t have your login information. While you want to make it as easy as possible for others to access your online accounts upon your death or incapacitation, you might not be eager to make your finances an open book—even to your own children—while you’re alive and well. Fortunately, there is a way to ensure that the information gets into the right hands when the time comes, while staying out of them until then.
The key is to compile a detailed financial account list (see the box for recommended list items), store it in a safe place and tell a couple of trusted people—ones who would be notified immediately of your death or incapacitation—where the list is kept. Make sure others close to you know who is storing the information.
Options for storing account information include a simple handwritten list, an online password vault (such as KeePass), or a password-protected document on your computer or saved onto a USB flash drive. A written list has some drawbacks: It needs to be kept in a locked, waterproof/fireproof box (not a safe deposit box, because that may be inaccessible for a while after your death) and you have to be confident that the person you entrust with the key doesn’t lose it or forget where it is. The other options allow your loved ones to access the needed information with a single password or login.
If privacy is a concern, you could tell your loved ones where the lists can be found (computer or flash drive), but give the password to someone else, such as an attorney or other confidante. Inform your heirs who to contact for the password when the time comes.
Estate planning tips
- Don’t forget to update your account list as you add or close accounts and change passwords.
- Set up joint accounts where appropriate.
- Designate power of attorney for finances. (Learn more from Nolo.)
- Keep at least one paper statement from each active account (bank, retirement, insurance, credit, loan, etc.) in an easy-to-find folder.
- Financial institutions will temporarily freeze accounts owned solely by a decedent. If you need payee information from online banking in order to continue paying bills (and you have online access), gather it before notifying the bank of the account owner’s death.
What to include
- Access codes and passwords to your computer, mobile devices and email accounts
- Financial assets (bank accounts, investments, retirement plans, annuities, life insurance, real estate, etc.), each with institution name, account number, form of ownership, card PINs, account username/password and answers to security questions
- Liabilities (credit cards, mortgages, etc.), each with creditor name, account number, repayment requirements, co-signer/joint accountholder information, approximate balance, card PINs, account username/password and answers to security questions
- Automated bill payments (subscriptions, AAA, gym membership, utilities, etc.), each with payee name, payment frequency or due date and amount, account username/password and answers to security questions
- Non-automated bills (rent, Internet service, wireless service, utilities, insurance, etc.), each with payee name, amount, payment frequency or due date and amount, account username/password and answers to security questions
- Tax preparer and attorney (name, address and phone number)
About Consumer Action
Consumer Action is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that has championed the rights of underrepresented consumers nationwide since 1971. Throughout its history, the organization has dedicated its resources to promoting financial and consumer literacy and advocating for consumer rights in both the media and before lawmakers to promote economic justice for all. With the resources and infrastructure to reach millions of consumers, Consumer Action is one of the most recognized, effective and trusted consumer organizations in the nation.
Consumer education. To empower consumers to assert their rights in the marketplace, Consumer Action provides a range of educational resources. The organization’s extensive library of free publications offers in-depth information on many topics related to personal money management, housing, insurance and privacy, while its hotline provides non-legal advice and referrals. At Consumer-Action.org, visitors have instant access to important consumer news, downloadable materials, an online “help desk,” the Take Action advocacy database and nine topic-specific subsites. Consumer Action also publishes unbiased surveys of financial and consumer services that expose excessive prices and anti-consumer practices to help consumers make informed buying choices and elicit change from big business.
Community outreach. With a special focus on serving low- and moderate-income and limited-English-speaking consumers, Consumer Action maintains strong ties to a national network of nearly 7,500 community-based organizations. Outreach services include training and free mailings of financial and consumer education materials in many languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. Consumer Action’s network is the largest and most diverse of its kind.
Advocacy. Consumer Action is deeply committed to ensuring that underrepresented consumers are represented in the national media and in front of lawmakers. The organization promotes pro-consumer policy, regulation and legislation by taking positions on dozens of bills at the state and national levels and submitting comments and testimony on a host of consumer protection issues. Additionally, its diverse staff provides the media with expert commentary on key consumer issues supported by solid data and victim testimony.
Digital Estate Planning Issue - Spring 2015 (spring_2015_digital_estate_planning.pdf)
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