Keys and Passwords

An elderly client of mine was preparing to leave my office after signing his documents. I asked him where he intended to store them, as originals have to be protected when it comes to estate planning paperwork. He said that he had a safe. I asked whether anyone had access to the safe, since it does no good to have your documents locked away and inaccessible after your death. He said that he kept forgetting the combination, so he wrote it on a card and taped it to the front of the safe! This little story illustrates a serious problem in estate planning, namely, how your successors have access to your information after you are no longer around to provide it?

In the last few years, much of our information has migrated to a digital format, held on personal computers, at financial institutions, or in the cloud. Managing passwords and access codes is increasingly a challenge in an era of Internet security. In the “old days”, which was not that long ago, people had a say for a safety deposit box and kept their information there. With the evolution of electronic information, more and more of us have accounts that are accessible only by Internet. In addition, we often store large amounts of information including photographs and financial documents electronically. A challenge in the estate planning process is to assure that whoever takes over managing your affairs (under a power of attorney, will or trust) is able to identify your assets, and obtain access to them. The historic problem with safe-deposit boxes has been that they are sealed when someone dies so that if there will is stored in the safe deposit box, it becomes very difficult to obtain. However, at least we knew where to find the paperwork. I encourage all of my clients to maintain a safe and secure list of their assets including accounts, account numbers, usernames and passwords so that should something happen, they will have both the information and the access. While your lawyer can complete your paperwork without all of that information, your estate plan is incomplete until you have done so. We do build into your documents the authority of your power of attorney holder or your executor to have access to your accounts. This authority does them no good whatsoever unless they know the identity of the account and preferably, the access codes.

Of course, this means preparing and storing such a list. Like the combination my elderly client taped to his safe, these are the electronic “combination” to your digital life. There are several applications that are available, sometimes for free and sometimes for a fee, for storing this information. However, a straightforward written list is still an excellent tool. It will give your successor access to all of the information they will need. It will need to be kept somewhere both secure and available. One possibility is to leave a copy in a sealed envelope with your attorney to be maintained with your file records. Consider your home security system, computers, email accounts, cloud storage accounts, social network accounts, financial accounts, and anything else that you store and protect electronically or that is electronically accessed. This is one more essential step in properly ordering your affairs.

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