As we spend more of our lives online -- banking, collecting
credit card rewards points, playing virtual reality games, creating
photo albums, emailing, tweeting -- it's increasingly important to
consider how beneficiaries can access those accounts and any assets
they hold, once we're gone.
"It used to be when someone passed away, there were all these
clues -- a paper trail around the house about what the deceased
person owned and owed," says Karin C. Prangley, an estate attorney
at Krasnow Saunders Kaplan & Beninati in Chicago. "Now there is
no more paper trail. All of that is digital. It's a big deal
because it's hard to get at that digital information."
Ignorance can be costly. "If you can't get into this person's
email account, if you have no idea where this person banks ... the
[deceased] person may have a million dollar account at Fidelity,
but you just don't know, says Prangley. "Maybe the person had an
insurance policy, maybe the person had an online store selling a
specialized product, maybe there was some sort of business you as
the heir don't know about. The money goes right to the grave."
Not having access to the deceased's online accounts or email
alerts could mean that bills normally paid online go unpaid. Since
the estate is responsible for existing debt, missing those payments
could cause headaches as you straighten out the problem, says
Deborah L. Jacobs, author of "
Estate Planning Smarts
." "If you don't find credit card accounts quickly and bill paying
is delayed and finance charges are assessed, you can most likely
get the credit card companies to forgive the finance charges,"
Jacobs says. "But you may have to fight them."
The opposite situation is also a problem. Recurring bills that
are on auto-pay may continue to be paid even after the product or
service is no longer needed. "We've seen instances where someone
has been dead for years and they're still paying for The Economist
online," says Jacobs.
Finding financial accounts
Without a list of financial accounts, finding them can be tricky,
but there are steps you can take. The easiest: check the person's
wallet, pocket, desk and drawers for the receipts, Jacobs says.
"Even if you're doing almost everything online, those receipts may
be in their pockets."
To find open accounts, such as credit cards that aren't
regularly being used and generating receipts or bills, you can get
a copy of the deceased person's credit report from one or all of
the three consumer credit reporting agencies, TransUnion, Experian
and Equifax. But you'll need documentation, agency representatives
For example, all three require a copy of the death certificate
and proof that you have power of attorney or are executor of the
In addition to banking and investment accounts, many people access
their airline, hotel and other rewards programs online, says Glenn
C. Williamson, CEO and founder of WebCease Inc. in Portland, Ore.,
which helps heirs track down those digital assets. "I personally
have half a million Hyatt points, valued at $35,000 to $45,000,"
The potential dollar loss goes beyond financial accounts and
rewards programs to items you may not think of immediately,
Prangley says. "What's the cost of losing a lifetime of photos?
What happens to unique weapons held by a World of Warcraft master?
What about wins in offshore, online poker accounts?"
North American respondents to a
survey by security giant McAfee
valued their digital assets at an average of $54,722 with listed
assets including music downloads, photos, emails, financial and
health records, career information and contacts, and hobbies and
Even a great-grandfather may have digital assets if he's been
online, says Williamson. "We did one 91-year-old guy who didn't
even have an email address and he had hotel points," he says.
Another man in his 80s had a separate Facebook account for selling
RVs -- news to his family, Williamson says.
Finding assets online can be time-consuming. First, heirs have
to know an account exists. Second, they have to be able to gain
access to that account via usernames and passwords.
"People are grieving," says Jacobs, the author. "This is adding
an extra hardship."
Williamson estimates it took him 25 hours to find his mother's
online accounts after she passed away, which gave him the idea for
WebCease. WebCease routinely searches about 60 nonfinancial online
accounts, including photography sites such as Flickr, hotel and
airline rewards programs, social media sites and e-commerce sites
including Amazon, PayPal, Netflix and eBay.
WebCease researchers will personalize the search and look for
additional accounts when necessary, Williamson says. For instance,
in the case of the RV enthusiast, they searched various campground
websites to see if the deceased had a membership with valuable
rewards or resale potential. "We wouldn't typically search on
those, but when my researchers make a correlation they will go
further than our standard list."
WebCease lets its clients know what it finds, and then gives
them each site's policies and information on how to transfer the
digital assets and how to shut down the account, Williamson
Rescuing vital records
Passwords are the next hurdle. Even if you as the executor or heir
have written permission from the deceased account holder to access
accounts, without the proper passwords, online providers may not
give you the content, says Hazel Sanchez, estate planning attorney
at the Law Offices of Rhonda H. Brink in Austin, Texas.
"Each one has different procedures," says Sanchez. "Some online
providers, if they were to find out the account holder is deceased,
would simply close the account and delete all the information on
Sanchez recommends that if you do have access to usernames and
passwords, you print out hard copies of financial information so
that even if the accounts are later deleted, you'll have the
information you need.
Technically in these cases, you could be liable for unlawful
access of data, but it's not likely an heir would be prosecuted.
"They talk about liability of unauthorized access, but nobody ever
enforces it," Sanchez says. "It's more important for the fiduciary
to gain control of assets and prevent deletion of information
before anything happens."
Shutting down fraud
Eventually, though, you'll want to make sure you close accounts for
security reasons. The identities of nearly 2.5 million people are
misused every year to apply for credit, according to a
2012 study by ID Analytics
"You don't want mom's profile out there," says WebCease's
Williamson. "When you die, it's public record. It's so much easier
to steal a deceased person's identity."
To prevent fraud and identity theft, notify credit card
companies and other lenders that the person has died, says Maxine
Sweet, president of public education at Experian. "They will report
the deceased status to the credit reporting companies and it will
automatically become part of the file, preventing fraud," she says.
"If the deceased was receiving Social Security benefits, the Social
Security Administration also should be notified and [SSA] will also
report that information to us."
Even if you're not looking for open accounts, you still should
contact the credit reporting agencies with a copy of the death
certificate, so the credit file can be updated, says Clifton
O'Neal, vice president of corporate communications at
You may also want to contact the Direct Marketing Association to
have the deceased removed from marketing mailing lists, Sweet says.
"Having those arrive in the mail can be painful for the relatives,"
Planning your digital afterlife
You can prevent many of these hassles for your own heirs by making
preparations now. A few simple measures can lessen or eliminate the
need for your loved ones to become online sleuths after you're
Keep a snail mail trail
Even if you do business mostly online, elect to receive some
paper statements so your heirs will find out about your accounts
from mail delivery, says Jacobs, the author. "Even though I favor
cutting down on the paper in our lives, this is not the place to
do it," she says.
Consolidate your accounts
Combining financial accounts or at least moving assets to a small
number of providers makes them easier to keep track of, Jacobs
says. "I know of a number of elderly people who have certificates
of deposit at 50 different banks," Jacobs says.
Finding the records could be sheer luck. Jacobs and her
husband went to one bank her mother-in-law used to cash in one of
her CDs and the bank officer told the couple she had a second CD
that they hadn't known about.
List account information
Make a list of accounts with the name of the financial
institution, account number and how it's titled and put it in a
folder if you're comfortable having that information at your
house, Jacobs says.
If not, make one list of user IDs and a separate list of
passwords, Sanchez suggests. Give each list to a different person
and tell your executor those people's names so the two lists can
be put together when you pass away, she says.
She acknowledges that keeping the list up to date could be
time-consuming, but says it's necessary. "We think it's very
important for everybody to make a list inventory of what they
have," Sanchez says.
Name an online executor
As you make that list of user names and passwords, consider
naming an online executor, who could be separate from your
overall estate executor, says Prangley, the estate attorney. An
online executor would identify and provide information to your
family about your online accounts and digital assets and they
could sell what might be useful to others, she says. Further, the
online executor could delete any emails or other online
communication that might hurt your family members, she says.
"Some people have separate online lives," she says. "Your
executor might delete your online flirting."
Am industry has cropped up to cater to today's digital estate
planning needs. For example, Eterniam, founded in 2013, preserves
all your digital assets -- photos, videos, documents and
content from social media sites. You can bequeath each asset to
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The Digital Beyond, created by John Romano and Evan Carroll,
is a think tank for digital death and legacy issues. Its website,
, maintains a list of online services designed to help you plan
for the future of your online content.