In the past year, I’ve had several probate cases where the decedent had bank accounts in which the banking was done completely online. This meant that the decedent did not receive any bank statements in the mail and none of these decedents had written down their passwords so that family members would be able to access their accounts.
The families have no idea how much the decedent has in his/her accounts and banks will not release information to the families if they are not listed on the accounts. Without being listed on the account (either as a joint owner, or as a payable on death (POD) beneficiary), the only option is to open an estate and have someone named as personal representative of the estate. Unfortunately for one of these clients, the decedent only had a couple hundred dollars in the account and it cost more to open the estate than the account was worth.
I’ve read where family members will hire an IT specialist to hack into the decedent’s computer, and I guess that’s an alternative (although, probably no more cost effective than opening an estate). Considering this is illegal, we do not recommend this route.
So, how do you deal with these “digital” assets stored on the internet? Digital assets can include anything from online bank/brokerage accounts to domain names, blogs, and social media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter. At the very least, you may want to provide your heirs with login info to access web accounts, automated bill payment accounts (to allow them to cancel payments), etc.
There are some websites out there such as Legacylocker.com and assetlock.net which allow users to store account information and release the information to designated beneficiaries after the user’s death. Since online passwords are becoming more relevant, I’ve started giving clients a form they can fill out and notate their passwords for everything.
Laurie Ohall is a board certified elder law attorney in Brandon, Florida. If you would like to learn more about estate and digital asset planning, please contact her Brandon law office today.