In an age when social media websites record so many life experiences and so much personal information is stored online, financial advisers and estate lawyers are increasingly advising clients on handling their digital estates as well as their financial legacies.
Laws on the books address the transfer of financial assets, such as real estate, bank accounts, stocks and even physical items like furniture and silverware. But federal and state regulations are — for the most part — in catch-up mode when it comes to digital assets.
Some states have passed laws that give executors of estates the authority to handle the decedent’s digital assets — including online accounts such as Facebook, LinkedIn and email — as they would any other assets.
Pennsylvania is not one of them, said David Walters, a financial adviser at Palisades Hudson Financial Group and author of the chapter on planning a digital estate in Palisade Hudson’s new book, “Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.”
“Because there are not laws in many states now addressing digital assets, executors often do not have legal authority over these assets,” Mr. Walters said. “In most cases, that means the original agreement between the online vendor and the person dictates what happens when that person dies.
“Usually what the online vendor will do is shut down the account.”
For that reason, as part of estate planning documents, Mr. Walters recommends including a list of all online accounts and passwords. The individual can stipulate what should be done with email and other online accounts upon death.
“Think about what would happen if you were to die unexpectedly or become disabled,” he said. “If your spouse or other loved one doesn’t have your user names and passwords, he or she may find it awkward at best and impossible at worst to manage your affairs.”
Pittsburgh lawyer E. David Margolis said he makes a point to discuss the issue of digital assets with clients. He asks them to fill out an “important information inventory,” which is a road map into the client’s personal affairs such as a list of financial accounts with account numbers and information about all online accounts.
“This is not something we do formally in a will. It’s for their own purposes, but some clients ask me to keep a copy,” said Mr. Margolis, a trusts and estate attorney at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Downtown.
A digital asset rarely has monetary value, “but it’s a window into your life,” Mr. Margolis said. “It’s a question of preserving access to the information.”