Many of my younger readers are familiar with Facebook and other social networking sites. (Here’s our Facebook page. It can keep you abreast of the headlines for our blogs.) They are frequently warned about how their online presence could negatively impact their real life job prospects and relationships. As a result, many users try to self-monitor their posts and keep their online life secure and G-rated. Similarly, many parents create their own online social networking accounts to monitor their children and older adults use them to get back in touch with long-lost friends.
The internet has dramatically altered the way we interact with people on a social level. But it has also permeated our daily lives in a multitude of ways, sometimes with the unintended consequence of making our estates extremely difficult to manage once we are gone. E-mail, e-statements, direct deposit, and autopay all create potential problems in estate and trust administration.
Consider the most basic estate: a few bank accounts and some ongoing bills. If you, like many of us, have gone green and begun receiving e-statements and e-bills with direct debit autopay, then your Trustee or Executor may have to be able to access that information to know what assets and liabilities belong to your estate. Since marshaling assets and determining what creditors, if any, exist are among the very first steps in estate administration, it is no longer enough to simply check the mail for bills and statements. Most of these important documents are sent with an e-mail reminder, but the actual statement can only be seen by logging into the account. Failure to provide these passwords can lead to additional expenses, a longer administration, and a lot of needless headaches. See our Estate Settlement FAQ’s for other administration issues.
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In a more complicated administration, such as one involving a business, an Executor or Trustee’s inability to access your e-mail account could cost significant amounts of lost revenue. The problem grows exponentially in especially time-sensitive businesses. If you have spent any time and money doing business succession planning, it would be a shame for the business to fold because of an e-mail account.
You may be thinking that once you are gone, your Trustee or Executor need only prove their authority to act on your behalf in order to obtain these vital passwords. Think again! Privacy policies vary widely among various carriers. Yahoo! apparently treats e-mail accounts as confidential and will simply shut down the account upon being notified of the account-holder’s death. However, Yahoo! has allowed access to e-mail accounts with a court order. Google, on the other hand, requires a death certificate and a court order. Facebook, often criticized for its failure to adequately protect user privacy, appears satisfied with an obituary to memorialize the user.
Clearly, the variation of approaches means three things to the loved ones you leave behind: research, time, and money. So what is a person to do? Clearly you don’t want to start giving everyone your passwords, especially when it comes to your banking information. One relatively simple solution is to write them all down and lock the list in your safe or safe deposit box. Another method is to explore more digital options; various new companies have arisen in the last few years who claim to securely store this information and allow only authorized individuals to access the list.