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Leaving behind the digital keys to financial lives

Kieran Clifford, a retiree in Dallas, took extra precautions after a hacker requested a large wire transfer from his account. 
Kieran Clifford, a retiree in Dallas, took extra precautions after a hacker requested a large wire transfer from his account. 
Published Jun. 30, 2013

Bob Ginsberg, a retired production manager for an educational publisher, is worried because he does not know any of the log-ins and passwords for online accounts belonging to his partner or his brother, and they do not know his.

At 72, he said his concern is not about Facebook or email. It is for their financial lives, which have migrated online. Now, when people die without disclosing their financial affairs to anyone else, there is often no paper trail for heirs to follow.

"You'd never know someone else's financial arrangements, but if it was paperwork you'd have a clue," Ginsberg said. "I'm entirely comfortable doing absolutely everything online. But if I have to take over for my brother or my partner, I don't have any of their information."

In its annual Wealth and Worth study, U.S. Trust said 45 percent of the high-net-worth people it polled had not organized the passwords and account information for their digital lives in a place where heirs or an executor would find them.

In an era when far fewer records are kept on paper, spouses and children may not even know that some financial accounts exist. Think of savings accounts that are only online, or a rollover retirement account that hasn't been touched in years.

"It's not only something that needs to be addressed with an individual dying," Chris Heilmann of U.S. Trust said. "If an individual becomes incapacitated, people typically plan for someone to have a durable power of attorney so someone can step in and handle your affairs. But now you're finding the attorney has to deal with your digital issues. They have to access your computer; they have to pay bills for you."

What can people do?

There are many websites and tools that allow people to upload their accounts and passwords into so-called digital vaults. They promise security and a one-stop shop for disparate digital lives. But they often go unused.

People need to record their account information and passwords just as they need to make an appointment to draw up a will.

Heilmann said people need to think about five things to ensure that everything goes smoothly with their digital financial lives if they become incapacitated or die:

• They need to maintain a list of their digital information.

• They need to send the information to someone they trust.

• They must make sure other people know who has the information.

• They need to leave instructions for how everything should be handled.

• They should note all of this in an estate plan and update it regularly.