A trusts and estates attorney prepared a will. There were no provisions in that will for electronic bank statements or e-tax filings. The client died unexpectedly last year and his wife didn’t have the client’s passwords to those digital documents. She had no way to access those jointly held accounts, her husband’s virtual estate.
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Professional hackers had to be hired to hack into her husband’s computer and retrieve the passwords. It was a frustrating and complex process that only added to the wife’s grief.
Incorporating digital accounts into estate planning is still a relatively new phenomenon. As much as 36% of people over the age of 45 now bank online. Millions store documents in secure, online vaults. These vaults and other secure online financial accounts may have layers of passwords and security questions.
It’s not only the estate planners who fail to think of these accounts when writing a will. It’s the account holders, as well. Digital accounts of significance can include everything from online banking and investment accounts to social media such as Twitter accounts, domain names, blogs, and company websites.
Not including these assets in a will can result in unfortunate losses for heirs. If the deceased person paid bills and taxes online, the situation becomes even more complicated. Without login information required to obtain these records, it may be necessary to hire a computer forensics expert or to obtain a court order to demand access.
Other issues arise from the need to cancel cable, cellphone, and other accounts which are also password protected. These issues can come into play even if a death has not occurred.
If a person is suddenly taken ill from suffering a heart attack or stroke, there may be no way to access his or her accounts to carry on business during the person’s recovery.
Couple that with the fact that the number of states that have passed laws governing digital accounts can still be counted on one hand.
If you are working with a client’s estate planning attorney, you can be of invaluable help to them. You can work with the attorney to make sure these provisions are included in the client’s estate plan.
You can also encourage better record keeping on digital accounts so that heirs and executors will have access to needed information in the case of disability or death.
Having appropriate powers of attorney in place in the case of disability may also be critical.