You may be one of the best legal wordsmiths around, with unimpeachable wills and trusts and eloquence to put Shakespeare to shame, but are you doing your job? Times they are a changin’, and great legal documents no longer equal a great estate plan. The existence of online assets requires estate attorneys to step into the modern age to keep up with best practices.
An estate attorney’s responsibility remains the same: help clients plan for and execute the orderly and efficient transfer of assets. But as more and more account statements are accessed only by email, and an increasing volume of client assets move online, access can become more difficult. Many estate professionals are ignoring the attendant requirements.
The average American internet user values their digital assets at $54,722. Are you preparing your clients for their distribution? Do they have a plan for Facebook, Twitter, and email accounts? While those “assets” may not strike you as valuable, your clients’ loved ones may disagree.
How about online assets such as a PayPal account, online store credit, or even cash balances on gaming websites? Or assets as precious as family photos, videos, or sensitive documents stored online? Still unconvinced? How about actual money asset accounts for which your client only receives email statements?
The old estate administration advice to look through desk drawers and check the mailbox no longer cuts it. If you aren’t considering digital assets in your estate planning, you are likely giving incomplete advice that will leave your clients’ loved ones scratching their heads when the time comes for estate administration. Ignore this growing challenge and not only are you failing to achieve best practices, but you’re delivering a woefully insufficient estate plan to your clients.
If your only advice is that clients keep a paper list, your advice is only slightly better than ignoring digital assets entirely. Clients run the risk of hiding a paper list someplace so secure that it won’t be found by estate representatives, or someplace so accessible that it’s easily pilfered. If you suggest storage in a safe deposit box or lawyer vault, the inconvenience will likely result in an out-of-date list.
Fortunately, the digital revolution that got us into this mess now provides a wealth of convenient and secure solutions to get us out of it. Password safes like LastPass, 1Password, or Keepass use a single, master password to manage a database of usernames and passwords that is encrypted. If your client can devise a way to pass on the master password, she can give access to the breadth of her accounts to somebody with a moderate level technical proficiency. However, these solutions are limited to password management only and do not allow users to pick and choose who gets access to which account, and when. On the downside, these programs do require decent technical proficiency for both the current user and the person who will eventually receive the information stored, and they grant all-or-nothing access to online accounts without necessarily granting opportunity to leave instructions.
LegacyLocker is a direct-to-consumer product that gives users the ability to selectively pass-on online asset information. On the downside, it’s simplistic and only deals with online assets. AfterSteps is another direct-to-consumer offering that allows users to store and pass on a broader variety of information. Estate Map is a robust, highly-secure solution that allows password management along with the ability to selectively pass-on a wealth of other important estate information while simultaneously delivering client management solutions to the estate attorney. Estate Map incorporates the estate attorney into the process — seamlessly integrating into an existing practice with ease. As a big upside, Estate Map offers a free, no-obligation introduction to take it for a test drive.
Be on the lookout for other solutions in the marketplace as this issue gains increasing attention. The unfortunate reality is that more and more folks will die without a plan to transfer digital asset information and, as they do, the issue will gain increasing attention in the marketplace. Regardless of the solution offered, it’s time to put away the quill pens and embrace digital best practices — for your clients’ benefit and your own best practices. After all, the best estate documents are no match for unprepared heirs.