I thought my husband and I were doing a pretty good job with our estate planning UNTIL I read this AARP article, “Prepare a Digital Estate Plan for Future Caregivers.” Now I realize there’s a huge hole in what needs to be done before we die or become unable to manage our own affairs, and the executors of our estate and future caregivers suddenly need access to our digital assets and data!
When my dad died about 4 years ago at age 97, he didn’t even own a computer. Anything digital relating to his life and estate was already on my computer, and as co-executor of his estate, I was already managing it. The Power of Attorney, the Family Trust, his Will and his death certificate were all my brother and I needed to quickly settle his estate and distribute or dispose of his assets.
However, my situation is very different. My husband has Alzheimer’s, and I am already handling all of our affairs. A lot of what our co-executors will need to know and have access to is on my computer. It not only needs passwords but, in some cases I’ve learned, specific legal permission to access.
I’m in good health now, but at age 76, if I’m realistic, who knows how much longer my good health and brain power will last. If I don’t want to leave a big mess for our 5 children, I need to follow the advice about a Digital Estate Plan that I’m about to share with you.
You can find most of the What-and-How-To you’ll need in the 5 articles I found valuable and listed below, but hopefully my summary contains the basics and will give you the motivation and direction needed to start filling your own digital hole, if you have one.
What Are Your Digital Assets?
The answer to that question will vary from person to person, but it’s a good idea to start your plan by making a list that you can add to as other things come to mind. It may include most of the following and more, for both you and your spouse:
- Email and social media accounts
- Online banking and credit card accounts: note any accounts you may have linked to your card or bank for automatic billing
- Accounts for managing utilities
- Online subscription services
- Shopping or marketplace accounts (i.e., Amazon, eBay, etc.)
- Photos and videos saved online or in the cloud
- Loyalty program benefits (i.e., frequent flyer miles, credit card perks, etc.)
- Personal information or apps on your cell phone, or tablet
- Contact lists for calling, email or texting
- Document files with a password, such as a journal or work projects
- Websites or blogs you maintain
- Entertainment, music, film and e-book purchases stored online
Who Do You Want to Have Legal Access to Your Digital Assets?
Prepare (or revise) your estate planning documents to include digital assets and related information:
- Where and to whom you want your digital assets to go
- All your documents (i.e., wills, powers of attorney and trusts) should authorize someone to be your “agent” and your executor for your digital estate. Include language giving your chosen person(s) authority to “access, control, use, cancel, deactivate, or delete Digital Accounts and Digital Assets, and to access, control, use, deactivate or dispose of Digital Devices.” This makes sure they truly have your legal consent to do so.
- Give at least one person access your accounts. The same person or someone else should be given the authority to act on your behalf.
- Be sure to tell the people you trust and who will need it where the plan and access information is.
How Will Your Family or Other Caregivers Access Your Accounts?
Once you’ve made your list and specified where and to whom you want each asset to go, you’ll need to add all the usernames, PINs, passwords, and in some cases answers to common security questions that go with each one. If you were to pass away suddenly or become incapacitated, someone must be able to easily access online bank statements, bills, and other information that requires action. You may want to print out your year-end statement from each of your accounts and save them in a file. This will create an easily accessible paper trail.
One in three caregivers say a top challenge of taking over for someone is locating passwords and accessing accounts. Almost 50 percent don’t have legal authorization to ask providers (such as banks, credit card companies, email services) to disclose any details or give them access to accounts. Data privacy laws prevent providers from giving caregivers, even family members, access to vital information without proper paperwork. Write out clear instructions, in order to enable a caregiver or executor to manage your affairs without court intervention.
How Can You Safely Store Digital Access Information?
You need to keep things like usernames and passwords safe, but your caregiver or executor also needs to be able to find and access them whenever they are needed. Including them in your Will isn’t an option, because after you die, your Will becomes public information. You want to be able to update your digital Estate Plan as you create and delete online accounts, without having to update your Will.
Some choices for how to keep this information safe include:
- Store information with a document vault service or one of the excellent password management toolsthat create, remember and fill in passwords automatically.
- Back up your data frequently. Store important items on external devices kept in another location.
- Keep hard copies of the information in a locked, fireproof cabinet or safe.
How Can You Ensure your Digital Estate Is Handled the Way You Want It to Be?
Write a letter of instruction for your future caregivers and executors that spells out how you want your digital estate handled. Specify to whom assets should be transferred, which accounts you’d prefer to be deleted, or which ones you want saved as part of your personal history or memories you want passed on.
Some social media sites have functions and solutions you can select in advance. For example, Facebook allows users to designate a profile executor who can access your account upon death. Gmail users can designate an inactive account manager who may access the account if it goes inactive for a specified period of time.
Give specific instructions as to who can access your email accounts. They allow your beneficiaries to access bills and notifications, and often serve as access credentials for other digital services. The content of your email may also be important for sentimental value, or to help to settle the estate.
Why a Digital Estate Plan Is So Important: When your family can rely on a written plan that outlines the passwords for your digital assets as well as how those assets should be managed, they won’t have to worry about navigating a more extensive probate court process, and they can act quickly in the event of a sudden illness or death. Because North Dakota doesn’t require a separate Digital Estate Plan, make a note in your Will that you have one. The best Digital Estate Plans cover all your online activities.
Even though it will most likely be a family member who manages the finances and digital assets of an elderly loved one, a home care aide from Dakota Health will be aware of mail piling up or bills not being paid, and can notify the family that help is needed. To find out if your loved one could benefit from the services of a DHC Home Health Aide, call (877) 691-0015 for an in-home evaluation.