Your Digital Accounts: An Important Estate Planning Tool

Do you have digital (online) access to bank accounts, investment accounts, email, subscriptions or social media like Facebook, Twitter or Picasa photo albums? These things are known as your digital accounts or assets. Do you receive bills via email, have bills automatically debited from your checking account or charged to a credit card? If your answer to either of these questions is yes, then ask yourself this question: would your agent under a power of attorney or executor of your estate know where to look and how to gain access? If your answer is no, you have some digital account management and estate planning to do.

Digital accounts must be managed differently, so it is useful to divide them into two main groups: financial and personal. Digital financial accounts include bank, investment, credit card and contracts that renew automatically like online subscriptions. This group would include any creditors who email their bills to you or automatically debit/charge you for services. These are the digital accounts discussed in this article.

Consider the story of Mary K., whose husband died without leaving her complete information about how to access the online account for their bill payments. At first she did not know how to access any of the information, and she was not comfortable paying online. She struggled for months to convert the billing to paper; some bills became delinquent. She had particular difficulty with the power company, which eventually turned off her power until it was all straightened out. Suffering the loss of a spouse is difficult enough, without the additional burden of struggling to find access to pay online bills. 
There are four basic steps necessary to easily manage and plan for these digital accounts: keep a list with instructions, share it, update it and include an information sharing authorization in your power of attorney and will.

Step 1. Keep a list of these accounts with your usernames, PINs and passwords. You should create a paper copy of this list and keep it in a safe place with your will, power of attorney and other important papers. This list should never be part of your will or power of attorney since these documents may become public records or given to third parties. Be sure to include any special instructions your agent or executor may need about automatic debits or charges to your accounts. Likewise, he will need to know about bills or other financial information which are emailed to you. If you create the list on your computer, consider encrypting it to protect it in the event your computer is hacked and creating a backup of your information on an external hard drive. There are online companies that will store your personal information securely such as Dashlane, LastPass and Keepass. It may be worth considering one of these, since you then only need to store the one password to access your account with the security service.

Step 2. Share this list and instructions with your agent and executor. You can give a copy to them, but it would be more secure to simply let them know where to find your copy when they need it.

Step 3. Update the list and instructions. Don’t forget that as you change accounts, usernames, PINs and passwords, you will need to update your list.

Step 4. Both your power of attorney and will, or a separate authorization document, should have specific language authorizing your agent and executor to access your online information. This is critical because of the federal Stored Communications Act. Generally, the Act creates privacy rights that will cause certain required electronic communications providers, such as email providers, to refuse to disclose the user’s information to anyone else. This authorization gives the providers the right to disclose the information to your agent or executor. There is still uncertainty whether all companies will cooperate even with such a consent form due to the language of their user agreements. There are currently seven states that have laws attempting to address these legal issues but, presently, Pennsylvania is not one of them.

If you have created a website or other copyrighted information online, these may have monetary value. You should make a provision in your will to pass these assets to someone. Be sure to discuss this with your attorney.

The world of digital accounts and assets is very different than our tangible world. Attempting to maneuver through the digital world is something that many of us have tried, but only a few have mastered. When considering whom you would name as your agent and executor you should consider whether a person will know how to manage your digital accounts.