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Your Digital Afterlife: Estate Planning in the Internet Age

For a very long time, estate plans didn’t change much. Traditionally, they have been paper documents that spell out a person’s wishes regarding property, executorships’ responsibilities, funding of trusts, and so forth, that were spelled out in wills, trusts, powers of attorney, health-care proxies, and perhaps invoking the Homestead Act. (The Homestead Act is a document that can be added to your personal residence’s deed, to gain limited protection to the equity in your home). While all these documents still represent the foundation of a modern-day estate plan, the Internet has added a whole new dimension to the process.

Online banking, employer financial plans, investments, and even tax returns can now be accessed with the click of a mouse. While everyone enjoys the convenience of the Internet, big problems arise if a decedent hasn’t informed survivors about critical information such as URLs, passwords, and PINs.

I recently heard a story of a woman whose husband handled the finances for the family. Upon his death, she didn’t know anything about his stock options with his former employer. She subsequently lost over $19,000 because the options expired without her exercising them. I’m sure that $19,000 would have come in handy to pay the funeral expenses. Don’t let this situation happen to you. Make sure you store all pertinent information in a safe place and that your executor or heirs know where to find it.

Furthermore, with the popularity of social networking these days, have you ever thought about what happens to your online presence upon your death? Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter all have specific policies in dealing with this situation. Facebook allows friends and family members the option of either “memorializing” the profile or removing it entirely. Memorializing the profile allows it to be viewed by those whom the account holder had confirmed as “friends.” Friends may post on the deceased person’s wall, but can’t log into the account.  Removing the profile entirely may only be done by an immediate family member. To learn more, go to Facebook’s website and search for “How Do I Report a Deceased User or an Account That Needs to be Memorialized?” Keep in mind that you will need proof of death, such as an obituary.

Twitter users can email privacy@twitter.com or contact them via fax at (415)-222-9958. They will need the deceased’s user name or a link to the account profile page. A link to an obituary or news article is acceptable as well. Twitter accounts can only be removed, not left as memorials.

You can contact LinkedIn via fax at (402)-715-4536 or via their website. A “Verification of Death Form” must be completed and submitted. You will need the account holder’s e-mail address, URL of their LinkedIn profile, date of death, and an official death notice.

Blog services’ policies vary from service provider to service provider, so check their policies for removing a deceased user’s accounts. Usually the blog’s URL and the URL to the login page with the username and password should be a good start.

All documents and information should be kept in a safe place and someone you trust should be aware of how to access the data upon your death or incapacitation. Preferably it should be stored electronically, encrypted, and with a redundant back-up in the event a disaster recovery is needed.

Here is a checklist of important items:
1. Professional advisor’s contact information
2. Will
3. Insurance policies
4. Banking, savings, and investment statements
5. Property deeds
6. Retirement plan documents
7. Estate planning documents
8. Online presence information, i.e., user names and passwords

As you can see, in today’s digital age, this is not your grandparent’s estate plan. By taking some simple steps, however, you can make sure you, your family, and your assets are protected.

About the Author(s)

Kevin M. O'Brien, CFP®, AIF, CAP is an Accredited Investment Fiduciary® (AIF®) and founder and president of PEAK Financial Services, Inc. He is a Certified Financial Planner and a Chartered Advisor to Philanthropy. For more information, visit www.peakfs.com