Why You Should Do a Digital Inventory of Your Assets
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Last month, several media outlets reported that Apple required a Canadian woman to get a court order before gaining access to her deceased husband’s iPad. According to reports, the woman simply wanted to play card games her husband had downloaded to the tablet.
While that incident seemed particularly egregious, orphaned passwords and social media accounts occur with greater regularity.
For example, it’s not unusual to hear anecdotes about Facebook urging people to wish happy birthday to a deceased friend or relative. Such events may bring up strong emotions. But orphaned social media accounts may be less worrisome than lack of access to passwords and other digital assets after an investor dies.
Many investors understand the need to update their account beneficiaries or plan for tax consequences of passing along money to heirs. However, when it comes to leaving easy access to passwords and digital account information, many people fall short.
Gathering passwords and lists of online accounts may save survivors the effort of making stressful calls or waiting for a death certificate before accessing important data. With online bill paying and investment-account management so prevalent, lack of access causes serious problems for survivors unable to log in and process transactions like paying monthly bills.
In the future, service providers, such as financial advisors or estate attorneys, may play a greater role in helping clients pass along digital information, says Keith Fenstad, partner at Tanglewood Wealth Management in Houston.
“Login info is unique to each person, and we are not privy to it, so we don’t directly provide that info to anyone. However, as a part of their planning, clients should consider putting together an inventory of all this info. User names, passwords, location of account, answers to security questions would all be valuable to executors and/or heirs,” Fenstad says.
He adds that people may also wish to leave a list of all their devices, such as phones, laptops or tablets, along with screen lock passwords.
“What’s becoming more and more important is dealing with these digital assets,” he says. “That’s not just financial accounts but email accounts, gaming and social media profiles, such as Facebook or YouTube. While these assets may not always have a lot of monetary value – although it’s very possible – they have a lot sentimental and personal value.”
Fenstad notes that many social media accounts also contain personal data that must be protected. “Think of how we are living our lives through pics and videos, and how valuable that would be for our loved ones,” he says.
He suggests that people specify how they would like social media accounts handled after their death. For example, accounts may be deleted entirely, the information passed along to heirs or the account transformed into a virtual memorial.
“Many user agreements state this info is simply deleted upon death. The laws have not kept up, and each account may operate with different rules,” he says. “For a retiree client’s account login information, how is this passed onto others after somebody’s passing? Do you simply have a sit-down with the heir to those specific accounts and give the information? Is there a plan put into place? Broadly, is the intergenerational jump difficult with clients?”
Cataloging passwords and other information may be relevant in work situations as well, should an account owner die suddenly.
Aaron Klein, CEO of Auburn, California-based Riskalyze, which helps financial advisors determine investor risk tolerance, found that a disorganized array of passwords made it difficult for co-workers to share information.
“As the CEO of a financial technology company, I’ve got passwords and access codes for personal and company finances and much more. My executive assistant and [chief financial officer] needed access to some of them. And they were a mishmash of trouble – too simple, all the same, shared over text message,” he says.
Klein acknowledges that the process of collecting and streamlining passwords isn’t pleasant, but it is worthwhile. He implemented LastPass, which allows users to digitally store and manage passwords.
“I won’t lie – it was hell for a solid week while I changed my passwords everywhere by generating new, secure ones in the app. But now that it’s done, it just feels so good to know that I’ve done everything I can to keep my digital life and my company’s finances safe and secure. And as a bonus, about 80 percent of the time I can auto-fill passwords on my iPhone and iPad using my fingerprint,” Klein says.
While younger generations are more attuned to the significance of their devices and passwords, today’s generation of retirees may not think about that so readily. “Unfortunately, too many retirees don’t go the extra step of getting their loved ones and professionals on the same page before an unexpected crisis like a death or a disability,” says Tom West, senior associate at Signature Estate & Investment Advisors, in Tysons Corner, Virginia.
Those steps include being transparent about priorities. In other words, don’t leave survivors guessing about your wishes for any of your assets, including the intangible, such as online accounts. Sharing information with the appropriate parties, such as attorneys or financial advisors, is a crucial part of the process, West says. In addition, families must be informed of which outside parties possess relevant information.
“Retirees need to take responsibility to identify to all relevant parties what their roles might be in the circumstance of some big change. Families need to know the identity of aligned professionals before something happens as well as the location of legal documents that can aid them in times of crisis,” he says.
West says information may be transmitted in a family meeting or simply via a written list of professional contact information that accompanies legal documents and household financial information.
“In a nutshell, if no one knows what your contingency plans are and how to help in a time of crisis, a retiree’s chance of a best-case outcome decreases dramatically,” he says. “Don’t forget!”