Death In Cyberspace

Almost everyone tends to keep their estate documents and other important paperwork in a safe-deposit box, a desk drawer or some other location where they can be found when they are gone. Upon a person’s death, family members and the executor will build an inventory of assets by reviewing those important papers or pulling statements from the mail. However, we are now in an age where individuals may no longer receive paper account statements. Every year, more and more financial and personal information is held in password-protected websites.

How does a family member or executor track down or even know about a savings or investment account held in an password-protected online bank which sends online statements to a password-protected email account? Do you even know how many email accounts your loved one may have? Or what about a person who utilizes an online photo storage by uploading digital family photographs? If nobody is aware of the photo storage site upon his/her death, the photographs could be lost forever. These examples are becoming more of a reality as we spend more time online. But it also raises questions as to what happens to our “online lives” after we die.

Obtaining access to social networking sites, online financial websites and email accounts after a person’s death has created legal and technological problems. According to John Dozier, an internet law expert, it appears as if the technological, business and social aspects of the web are far ahead of the law. The terms-of-service agreements for popular sites like Gmail and Facebook prohibit the use of an account by anyone other than the original owner. Therein lies the problem.

Many assume that a majority of the online activity is due to the younger generations and that the retired generation doesn’t need to worry about their online lives. Not so, according to The 2009 Pew Internet Project. More than 70% of the Baby Boomer generation uses the internet for financial transactions, and more than 55% conduct their banking online. Since 2005, people aged 70 and older have increased their use of the Internet more than any other age group surveyed. In fact, women over the age of 55 comprise the fastest growing segment of users on the popular social networking site, Facebook.

It’s been common knowledge to not write down your login information for websites, but rather to choose usernames and passwords that you can easily remember. However, given that every year more people are moving their financial and social records online, it is critical to maintain a detailed listing of all internet and email accounts. If not, then upon a person’s death, some of that information may never be recovered.

An individual can simplify matters a great deal by creating a record of accounts and their passwords. This record of accounts could be written down, placed on a CD or a USB flash drive and then provided to a relative, attorney or a person of trust. But this too creates a problem in that you are relying on that one person to safe keep the information and not use it inappropriately.

At Truepoint, we recommend clients maintain a detailed summary of their financial information and other important paperwork. However, we just recently began discussing with clients the need to also maintain a summary of their usernames, passwords and corresponding websites for their online lives. Truepoint provides clients the opportunity to upload information to their “Document Center” via our website. The “Document Center” provides VeriSign encrypted storage of your confidential information such as estate documents, tax returns and other permanent records. The documents are in one place for future availability to the executor and family members.

However, if individuals are concerned about storing the access to their online lives in one location, then we recommend splitting their digital security information between two places. One could be an online security site as mentioned above and the other could be a family member or someone they trust. This ensures each side’s information is useless without the other. This list should be updated at least every year.

Without this login information, the family members or the executor will more than likely need to obtain a court order to access information for a deceased’s online account. But, even with a court order and calling the 800 number, it may be difficult to find the proper person or department to provide you access to the account.

The use of the internet within the last ten years has forced many individuals into a paperless society. Although this is positive for our environment, it creates a problem in that our daily lives are now password-protected. While death is an uneasy topic to consider, it’s best to be prepared by not just organizing important paperwork but also your online life.

Truepoint Wealth Counsel is a fee-only Registered Investment Adviser (RIA). Registration as an adviser does not connote a specific level of skill or training. More detail, including forms ADV Part 2A & Form CRS filed with the SEC, can be found at Neither the information, nor any opinion expressed, is to be construed as personalized investment, tax or legal advice. The accuracy and completeness of information presented from third-party sources cannot be guaranteed.

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