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April 01, 2016 Article 3 min read
Part of Plante Moran’s wealth management practice deals extensively with helping our clients plan for the distribution of assets after their death. Most people think of this in terms of tangible assets — real estate, financial accounts, jewelry, artwork, antiques, or other family heirlooms or items of value. However, a growing area of concern is what happens to your digital assets in the event of your death?

Recently, I sat down with Raj Patel, the leader of Plante Moran’s cybersecurity consulting team to talk about this emerging issue.

Digital assets defined

The things that come to mind for most people are online investment accounts, bank accounts, and other online financial sites and information that have a monetary value. In most cases, the assets we’re talking about are the username and passwords that would allow someone access to these accounts.

Some of the things that people might not think about, however, are digital photo albums, music playlists, blogs, email accounts, or social media sites. These types of digital assets may contain original creative work or property that is irreplaceable and has significant sentimental value.

Tips to help you protect your digital assets now and transfer them when the time comes

Regardless of age, experience, or financial circumstances, protecting your privacy online and keeping your electronic information out of the wrong hands is critical. However, when it comes to estate planning, the more information your family, heirs, trustee, or personal representative has, the easier it is to resolve your estate if you die or become incapacitated. Balancing these two goals can be challenging, but Raj has some general suggestions to help you give your family a map without opening yourself up to too much risk.
  1. Designate a “digital fiduciary” in your will or trust and provide him or her with specific instructions on how you would like your digital assets handled upon your death.
  2. Make an inventory of all your assets and provide a copy to your fiduciary, attorney, or professional trustee. Update the information as it changes and review annually. Include:
    • Online memberships or payment service sites
    • Investment/banking sites
    • Social media sites
    • Blogging sites or other places you may have written content archived
    • Photo storage and sharing sites
    • Have your inventory include account numbers and IDs but not passwords.
  3. Record the answers to your security questions that will unlock your account and lock them in a safe — your trustees can use them to gain access to your accounts if you are unable to do so. This way you don’t have to share your passwords with trustee or family member.
  4. Do not use your browser’s save function to record financial passwords and IDs — news sites or other sites with no personal information are okay.
  5. Avoid password storage software applications and programs — these can be prone to fraud, bugs, and hacking. If absolutely necessary, you can record IDs and passwords in hard copy and store them in a physical lockbox, safe, or safety deposit box.
  6. Be careful about leaving written passwords where service providers or unauthorized caregivers may see them.

What can  I do if I think a recently deceased loved one had undisclosed assets?

If you have been charged with acting as a trustee on behalf of someone who may not have given you a full inventory of all digital assets, there are some things you can do:
  • Watch the mail for statements from unknown financial institutions or accounts — they may come monthly or quarterly depending on the type of account and can give you insight on where to look for missing assets.
  • If you have access to the deceased’s computer, you can look for favorite sites or browsing history which can tell you if they were using any social media sites, blogging sites, or even some financial sites.
  • If you are a trustee, you should also be able to legally request a log from the deceased’s internet provider to see if there are additional IP addresses that may lead to assets.
Remember, though, the process to locate an asset, verify that the original holder is deceased, and grant a legally designated heir access can be very complicated and frustrating. The best solution is to plan in advance and share information securely with your family or trustee so that he or she can act on your behalf when it becomes necessary.

For more information on this topic, and other issues related to estate settlement, watch our on-demand webinar Pushing up daisies: How to tell your family what they need to know when you’re gone >>