Protect Your Online Assets Too

Posted by on Feb 14, 2013

We are living more and more of our lives on-line and I am increasingly asked by clients:  what should we do about our on-line assets?   This is a moving target.  A number of companies have sprung up, offering — for a hefty fee —  to hold onto your passwords until your heirs eventually call to retrieve them.  I can’t recommend any of these firms and I’m not sure it’s at all necessary to pay someone to hold onto on-line information.

James died about a year ago after a lengthy illness.  He was a software designer and he did all of his banking and paid most of his bills on-line.  Upon his death, his brother Ed had to figure out how to access James’ accounts.  Fortunately, James had made it quite easy: he’d left accessible on one of his computers a file that contained key passwords to his bank and credit card accounts.  Ed was able to contact the credit card companies to cancel accounts and collect funds from various retirement accounts.

Not so easy were James’ social media assets, though they were less critical in this case.  James was very active in on-line dating. His photos and profiles stayed on-line for months after his death – who knows if anyone tried to hook up with him – until his best buddy finally contacted the sites, told them James had died, and asked them to take down the profiles.  Not so with James’ Facebook page which is still active a year after his death!

I recommend that as part of our estate planning, we leave in a secure but accessible place some basic information that will help our trustees/executors administer our on-line assets.   This is tricky because we are told to memorize our passwords and make it impossible for anyone to locate or guess them.  But many of us have assets that must be accessible to our trustees/executors after our death.

If you have a web site on which you conduct business, make sure your trustee can figure out how to operate the site until it’s ready to be closed.  The same goes for on-line mailing lists and selected financial accounts.  Leave accessible some key passwords, written down somewhere or, for example, on a flash drive in a secure location.  I have made it possible for my trustee to, upon my death, access my client mailing list and notify this list of my demise.  (More likely, I will get to retire rather than vanish suddenly, but just in case.)

It’s up to each individual to determine how much on-line information to leave available to a trustee/executor and how to make sure that information is accessible without breaching common-sense security.  It’s something we all need to be thinking about as we are increasingly conducting business and socializing on-line.