What is estate planning? Financial experts share why it's important to get things in order now

ByABC7 Chicago Digital Team WLS logo
Wednesday, October 20, 2021
Digital estate planning: Why it's important to get things in order now
Many of us have never even thought about our digital estate. What is it and why is it important?

It's National Estate Planning Awareness Week and financial experts say in the digital age, it's more important now than ever to get things in order regarding your will.

Craig Bolanos, founder and CEO of Wealth Management Group in Inverness and Downers Grove can, joined ABC7 to explain what digital estate planning is and why we all need it.

We all know the importance of having a will, but estate planning is more than just about financial assets. Experts say we must consider our digital assets, too.

Did you know, if someone you love dies and doesn't leave access to your accounts, it could take a court order just to find out something as simple as how much money is in your checking account or access your photos on your phone?

A digital asset can be a wide variety of electronic records and files that are stored online, on mobile devices, or on personal computers and should be noted in your digital Estate Plan.

These assets include:

  • Email accounts
  • Social media accounts
  • Online banking accounts
  • Online subscription-based accounts
  • Ecommerce or marketplace accounts (i.e. Amazon, eBay, etc.)
  • Photos saved online or on the cloud
  • Online chatroom accounts
  • Cell phone apps
  • Online dating or gaming accounts
  • Online accounts for utilities
  • Loyalty program benefits (i.e. frequent flyer miles, credit card perks, etc.)
  • Any other personal information you store on your computer, cell phone, or tablet
  • Many of us have never even thought about our digital estate, what is it or why is it important?

    If you do almost anything online, you probably have digital assets including electronic records that you own, control or license. Failing to make arrangements for those assets while you're alive could cause unnecessary costs, stress and heartache to those you leave behind.

    Online photo and video collections could be lost forever; heirs could also be locked out of electronic records with monetary value, such as cryptocurrency and frequent flyer miles; or email and social media accounts could be hacked. Even basic tasks, such as paying bills online or canceling online subscriptions, may be difficult or impossible if you haven't made arrangements.

    Where do you start and how do you plan for this?

    Name a digital executor and make sure you leave an inventory and login info so valuables and keepsakes aren't lost. There is no way for someone to know how you pay bills unless they could access your online account and emails. You could also possibly lose thousands of dollars on services you no longer use or don't need anymore, solely because you can't access them.

    What should people consider to make the digital executor's job easier for the person who winds up in that role?

  • The online life doesn't leave a paper trail
  • In the past, your executor - the person entrusted with settling your estate after your death - probably could have figured out what you owned and owed by rummaging through the papers in your filing cabinet and the bills in your mail. That's no longer the case.

    Because digital assets tend to be virtual in nature, an executor is not going to find them in a search of our home office. It is vital to leave some additional instructions on what you've created and how the executor is supposed to get access.

    Google and Facebook are among the few online providers that allow you to appoint someone to manage your accounts if you become incapacitated or die. Apple recently announced plans to add a similar feature. The vast majority of online providers don't have this option, however. Complicating matters further, almost all providers prohibit sharing passwords.

    Typically, executors can't demand access to your digital assets unless you specifically give them authority to do so in your will or living trust. Even then, a provider's terms of service may limit what the executor can do and hinder them from carrying out your wishes. So, giving your executor your login credentials may be the easiest way to make sure they can carry out your wishes, estate planning

  • Make a digital assets inventory
  • The first step in creating a plan for your digital assets is to make a list of them. Searching for a "digital assets inventory" will turn up some worksheets, including a detailed one created by the trade organization Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners, or STEP, that allows you to list your accounts, usernames and, if desired, your passwords.

    Don't forget to include access to your devices. If you have two-factor authentication set up on accounts to verify your identity - and typically you should - your executor will need the passcode to unlock your phone or other device that receives the authentication code.

    You may also want to leave a letter of instruction telling your executor about your wishes for various assets - what to delete, what to archive and what to transfer to heirs, for example.

    Another option is to keep your login credentials in a password manager such as LastPass or 1Password. These tools typically have a "notes" field that would allow you to include details about how you'd like the account to be handled. You would need to provide your executor with the master password, which could be included in the letter of instruction.

  • Keep your inventory safe - and updated
  • You don't want to include sensitive information such as passwords in your will, since that document becomes public after you die. Instead, store the inventory and letter of instruction with your other estate planning documents in a secure location, such as with your attorney or in a home safe, and let your executor know where to find it. You also could upload the information to an online storage site, such as Everplans or LifeSite, that allows you to give a trusted person access to the documents.

    Consider reviewing the inventory at least once a year and make any needed updates. You'll rest easier knowing your loved ones won't be locked out of your digital life.