It’s not comfortable to think about, but the reality is, it’s necessary: knowing what to do with property when a loved one passes away.
There are many details to consider when helping a client set up a will or estate plan — from assigning an executor or power of attorney to choosing beneficiaries, setting up a trust and more.
Today, with most people accessing the internet or social media daily, digital assets and their security must also be accounted for in a comprehensive estate plan. Keeping such assets under tight security while also ensuring they’re accessible to others in the event of a person’s passing can be tricky to manage, but not impossible.
Examples of digital assets
Just about everyone you know, from any generation, uses the internet. And people leave trails of data from their online activities, often involving multiple accounts on various platforms, which may include:
- Email or other electronic communications
- Social media sites, blogs or website domains
- Rewards programs for credit cards, hotels, travel, etc.
- Online shopping sites
- Financial accounts, including payment services, online banking and cryptocurrencies
- Cloud-based file storage of photos, videos, music, etc.
- Business data, including CRM databases, trade secrets, financials and other confidential information
Think of all the online accounts you’ve set passwords for. It could be dozens, and your clients may face a similar situation.
However, many people don’t create an actual list of those digital assets for other trusted individuals to manage in the event of their death or incapacitation, which puts those assets at risk of being out of reach.
Why digital assets matter — and can be hard to access
Digital assets have real-world implications. A client may have opted to go paperless and manage most of their finances online, and heirs may not be aware of various financial accounts held by their loved one — or, if they are, may not know where to find the credentials (usernames and passwords). They could be stored on a locked computer, smartphone or in an email account that’s password-protected.
But gaining access to this information can be easier said than done. As people grieve for their loved ones, the added burden of retrieving their personal information and dealing with administrative contacts from online service providers can create further heartache and frustration.
For example, immediate family members or representatives may make formal requests to email providers in the event that a deceased person didn’t leave clear instructions regarding their online accounts. But user agreements sometimes stipulate that a company won’t provide login credentials or full account access even after death as part of their user security policy.
This can impede access to important email communications, spreadsheets, personal documents, photos and more.
But as tough and tedious as this whole process may be, such assets can be secured and accessed with the right steps.
Advice for clients with digital property
When providing guidance to your clients, address the importance of including digital assets in their estate plans. Creating a plan in advance that includes a digital asset component can help minimize obstacles and administrative costs, and ensure that all digital property is accounted for and attainable in the event of their death.
One of the most important needs related to accessing the digital assets of someone who’s passed away is obtaining the death certificate. Some social media sites allow a deceased person’s account to be deleted by a loved one or set up to memorialize them, but the company will need information from — even a copy of — the death certificate.1 Advise clients to take this difficult but necessary step ahead of their efforts to gain access to accounts.
Beyond social media and password protection, many people have opted for biometric access to their devices, such as fingerprint or facial recognition. This presents an additional level of difficulty for those left in charge of their loved ones’ affairs. In those cases, consider a backup plan from the beginning with a question or code that only a trusted individual has.
When discussing this topic with your clients, address the following critical issues in their estate planning:
1. Create a complete list of digital assets
Include all online accounts, such as social media, email, payment services, online shopping sites, streaming services, financial institutions, insurance companies and others, along with all associated usernames and passwords.
Clients should tell their power of attorney or a trusted individual how to access this list, provide the permission to do so and outline the circumstances under which that information should be used.
2. Follow cybersecurity best practices
It’s critical to discuss cybersecurity with your clients, especially considering how much the world has gone digital since the beginning of the pandemic. Digital assets can’t be obtained or honored if they’ve been stolen or otherwise compromised.
Suggest that your clients and their loved ones protect their digital assets by taking these actions:2
- Use updated security software on all devices
- Check online accounts regularly for suspicious activity
- Check credit reports at least once a year for accuracy and unusual activity
- Create strong and varied passwords for all accounts
- Use two-factor authentication when available
- Use a PIN or passcode to unlock devices
- Avoid using public Wi-Fi
This is not an all-inclusive list, but it contains some of the most important basic elements of cybersecurity for today’s world.
Clients should also have a conversation with loved ones and attorneys regarding PINs and passwords to ensure that the information is kept in a safe spot yet accessible by a trusted and specified individual upon the client’s passing.
3. Back up important data
In the same way that someone might keep copies of important documents in a safe deposit box, clients can use a virtual safe deposit box for important electronic information. Various online services are available for backing up electronic data in the cloud in the event a computer crashes or is compromised in a cyberattack.
Likewise, any digital assets stored on the cloud should also be regularly backed up on a secure computer or hard drive to make access easier for those who need it.
4. Provide consent and instructions
We’ve alluded to this before, but it’s crucial: Estate planning documents should include wording that authorizes someone to be the executor of the deceased person’s digital estate. Such a legal document prepared by an estate planning attorney may allow a designated person to access, cancel, deactivate or delete digital accounts as specified.
Even with legal documents in place, clients should review each platform’s individual terms of service. If an executor doesn’t have a list of usernames and passwords, the process for retrieving information can be arduous and access may be limited, if not impossible.
The right tools to guide your clients
Work with clients to help eliminate ambiguity and difficulties for them or their loved ones by documenting their wishes and putting a digital asset plan in place.
As part of that plan, consider how you can improve your online engagement with clients and prospects. Use our Acceleration® resources and participate in our Setting Your Social Strategy module. It can help you develop a social strategy that complements your business development plan. Access these resources below.