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This New Year, Don't Forget Your Digital Estate


When you die, you leave behind more than just physical assets. You also leave behind a "digital estate" of financial data, documents, photos, and more. Planning ahead can help smooth the transfer of those digital assets.


Think about what would happen if you were to die unexpectedly or become disabled. If your spouse or other loved one doesn’t have your user names and passwords for your financial accounts, he or she may find it awkward at best and impossible at worst to manage your affairs.

As 2015 begins, do a New Year’s check of your estate-planning documents, making sure your spouse or some other trusted person has your login information. And make sure you have the correct beneficiaries.

As part of your estate planning documents, you should include a list of all online accounts and passwords for your executor. Your will can stipulate what should be done with email and other online accounts at your death.

The list doesn’t need to be formal. It can just be a folder with a printed list of logins and passwords. Passwords change, so updating your list is a good part of an annual process.

If you have password-management software, which is free or inexpensive, you can just give your spouse or executor the master password, which unlocks all others.

Bank and brokerage accounts contain financial assets, but your digital estate often has little or no monetary value but great sentimental value. Items in a digital estate can include a Dropbox account with thousands of photos, email accounts, and social media accounts like Facebook and LinkedIn. All this could be lost without current logins and passwords.

Absent a will, it may be very difficult for an executor to deal with digital vendors. As of this writing, only 7 states have laws addressing online estate planning, so in most cases the service contract between the deceased and the online vendor will dictate what powers an executor may have over an online account.

It’s a little bit of the Wild West. Putting your instructions in your will or an addendum to it may not be foolproof, and some vendors may not accept it, but it’s at least a good start.

There’s another area where people need to do an annual checkup. People often forget to update their beneficiaries.

Make sure that you have the correct beneficiaries on all life insurance policies, annuities, and retirement accounts such as IRAs, Roth IRAs, 401(k) plans, and similar plans.

These assets go to the beneficiary or beneficiaries listed on the account regardless of what your will says. So, it’s crucial that they’re correct and up to date.

David Walters, CFP®, CPA, heads Palisades Hudson Financial Palisades Group’s Portland, Ore. Some of the text in this article is taken from his chapter on estate planning in Palisades Hudson’s new book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. The 326-page paperback and Kindle ebook is available from Amazon at and Barnes & Noble at

Palisades Hudson is a fee-only financial planning firm and investment adviser based in Scarsdale, N.Y., with $1.3 billion under management. It offers investment management, estate planning, insurance consulting, retirement planning, cross-border planning, business valuation and appraisal, family-office and business management, tax preparation, and executive financial planning. Branch offices are in Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Portland, Oregon. Read the firm’s daily column on personal finance, economics and other topics at Twitter: @palisadeshudson.

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