While it’s obvious that much has changed with the advent of the internet in the mid-90s, the complexity has become even more pronounced within the estate planning industry. In the pre-internet days, when a loved one passed away, you could typically find one box that contained all their financial, legal and personal information. This made estate management much more straightforward, and easier to share with succeeding generations.

Fast forward to the present day, and nearly every aspect of our daily lives intersects with some sort of digital account — email accounts, online banking, online shopping, social media, cloud platforms, web hosting, you name it. How do we keep track of it all? Which one of these groups do you fall into?

Perhaps you’re some combination of the above. Or perhaps you don’t have a central repository for password and login credentials at all. Below are some helpful tips on how to get organized and ensure your loved ones have the access they need in times of crisis

1. Make A List

Create a record of your digital assets to be sure you (and your loved ones) are aware of what assets and accounts exist. This may include:

To keep this information secure, you’ll likely have to embrace some technology (at least a little bit). More on that next.

2. Store and Share Securely

There are a few different options here, depending on your comfort level. Below are some useful tools that we recommend or utilize ourselves:

  • Use a password manager app like 1Password or LastPass
    These apps securely store your credentials and offer added features like auto-filling in web browsers, secure sharing, and more. You may already be storing passwords in your device or browser keychains, but they may be limited as far as what types of information they can store and share (e.g., only passwords for websites, but not sensitive data like Social Security numbers or bank account info which the password manager software can also store securely).
  • Add security to your spreadsheet
    If you are strongly set in your Excel Enthusiast ways, there are still some methods you can implement to add an extra layer of security to your file. By adding password protection to the file itself, users (including you) would need to enter a password before gaining access to the spreadsheet. Additionally, make sure your device is set to unlock with a password to add an extra layer of security. Some devices also offer a biometric recognition option, like fingerprint or facial recognition, which can help to streamline your daily use. Obviously, this adds a few extra passwords to keep track of (and ensure you share with your trusted family members), but a little extra security is better than none at all.

3. Grant Legal Access to the Accounts

To be sure your trustee or estate administrator has sufficient power of attorney to gain access to these digital assets (or ones that you may have forgotten to include above), make sure to include this language in your estate planning documents.

Once the account owner passes, the Property Power of Attorney will no longer be applicable, so the successor trustee will have to show they have authorization to access the accounts. In some cases, the trust document and death certificate will be sufficient documentation. In other cases, depending on the institution, a small estate affidavit may work.

Keep in mind that terms of service for online accounts vary, and many organizations will not grant access to an account even with the documentation above. Below are some examples of policies from key players in the tech and social media industry:

  • Google allows the option of establishing an ‘Inactive Account Manager’ to make preparations in advance regarding who should have access to your accounts. Once the account holder is deceased, the options become more limited. In “certain circumstances” Google will work with the family to determine whether data can be shared or an account can be closed, but they will not provide passwords or other login details for the account.
  • In recent years, Meta (formerly Facebook) has updated their policies and settings, which allows users to appoint a successor administrator, called a Legacy Contact, for their account should the original account holder pass away. This also includes the option to set a user’s profile to ‘memorialized’ status, which secures the account and ensures it continues to be available to loved ones.
  • Microsoft’s Next-of-kin process for Outlook.com includes first serving Microsoft with a valid subpoena or court order before they will “consider whether it is able to lawfully release a deceased or incapacitated user’s information regarding a personal email account”. Even at that point, there is no guarantee that they’ll be willing to provide account data.
  • Apple considers privacy to be a fundamental human right, so they, too, require a court order that names the successor as the rightful inheritor. However, they do also provide a method for designating the successor in advance. As noted on the “How to request access to a deceased family member’s Apple account” support page:

We encourage Apple users to consider adding a Legacy Contact for your Apple ID* or an inheritance plan to your will that covers the personal information you store on your devices and in iCloud.

This can simplify the process of acquiring a legal order and reduce delay and frustration for family members during a difficult time.  (View the Apple Support website)

— Apple Support

A few states have also established laws granting executors access to digital accounts calling them “Account Custodians”, but companies are resisting due to their policies. To be sure your family members have access when they need it, check your accounts for legacy or successor settings and designate your successor in advance.

4. Bonus Points: A Digital Executor

If your primary trustee isn’t as tech savvy, you also have the option of appointing a Digital Executor to assist with the more technical aspects of accessing the accounts. This trusted person would act on your behalf to distribute or delete your digital assets according to your wishes.

By tackling these steps now, you can help to protect your accounts and your family members after you’re gone. Your loved ones will thank you.

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*To add a Legacy Contact, store a Legacy Contact access key, or make a Legacy Contact request on your device, you need a device with iOS 15.2, iPadOS 15.2, or macOS 12.1 or later.

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The options presented here are not intended to be a finite list and make no guarantees about their usage. FLA has no affiliation with any of the products mentioned here and does not receive any compensation for inclusion here.