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4 ways to help clients control their digital afterlife

A new law helps people determine what happens to their digital assets after they die, but the law's provisions only apply if they take specific action

Oct 22, 2019 @ 4:20 pm

By Amy Florian

Your clients have more digital assets than they realize. What happens to those digital assets when they die?

Until now, the terms of service for each individual site have determined who has ownership and access after a death and whether the assets are deleted, frozen or can be transferred. That creates a hodgepodge of rules that survivors must laboriously wade through, and many family members are shocked to find they have no control at all. Often it means they lose treasured messages, photos and history, not to mention items of financial value.

In an article last year, "When Your Client Dies, Who Gets Their Airline Miles?" I explained recent changes to the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, or RUFADAA. Now, almost every state in the U.S. has passed this act, and experts are gaining a better understanding of how the law helps clients determine what happens to their digital assets after they die.

[Recommended video: What is digital estate planning?]

4 steps to take in light of RUFADAA

This law allows your clients to name a digital assets fiduciary in their last will and testament. The designated person has legal authority to gain access to their digital assets as dictated in the will. If they also list their wishes for disposition of those assets, their wishes supersede the terms-of-service provisions of each individual site, giving the client control.

This is a game-changer. But the provisions only apply if clients take specific action. Therefore, educate your clients now, and don't forget their family members. (Remember, a client's young adult daughter may value her Instagram account more highly than her bank account!) Make digital property part of your estate planning process so you can help clients maintain more control of their digital afterlife.

[More: Fintech aims to digitize estate planning]

To take advantage of this act's provisions, here are four steps you can take with your clients:

1. Help your clients inventory all digital assets. It is helpful to classify them under categories, such as communication (email, contacts, phone log-in); rewards programs (hotels, airlines, restaurants); shopping (eBay, Craig's List, department stores, Amazon); online data storage sites (iCloud, data back-up sites); finances (online payments, banking or investment accounts, Bitcoin); social media (Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, SnapChat); gaming sites; and fantasy leagues (especially if there is real money involved).

2. Work with the client's estate planning attorney to ensure their will names a digital assets fiduciary, plus an alternate in case that person cannot serve.

3. Either in the will or in a separate document that is referenced in the will and kept with it, have clients list their wishes for each asset. For instance, do they want their social media shut down or memorialized? Who gets points? Who has access to emails, texts, and social media sites, and what should they do with them? Where do pictures go?

4. To facilitate the fiduciary's access, recommend that clients use one of the available services, such as LastPass, that generate secure passwords for every site and store the passwords and user names. Using provisions for denial of access until death, the client should then give the named fiduciary the master password to that service, plus instructions for any two-factor authentication. Using such a service keeps passwords and user names out of the will, since the will becomes a public record upon death.

Take these steps now so your clients and their families gain more control over their growing list of digital assets, and prevent a whole host of post-death headaches. When you do, you will gain the trust and loyalty of the entire family, and retain clients for life.

[More: When clients survive a mass shooting]

Amy Florian is CEO of Corgenius, a firm that works with financial professionals and others who help the grieving.

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