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How to address online accounts in an estate plan

Nearly everyone in New Jersey -- and nationwide -- has at least some sort of online account. This includes everything from email accounts to bank accounts, and everything in between. The fact that so many people conduct at least some of their personal or business lives online has led to the need for them to be addressed in an individual's estate plan.

If these so-called digital assets are not addressed in a will or trust, family members and/or the executor of a person's estate may not know to look for them. Depending on the type of account, heirs could be missing out on a substantial portion of their inheritance. Additionally, any accounts not closed could end up in the hands of hackers who may steal the decedent's identity for their own purposes. An individual can list all digital accounts in his or her will or trust, but it is not recommended that usernames and passwords be listed. Instructions as to where to find the list with that information can be added, however.

Even with the usernames and passwords, an heir or executor could have trouble gaining entry into the account without being in violation of either New Jersey or federal law. Unfortunately, legislation has not yet caught up to the digital age in that regard. It may be necessary to obtain a court order to legally access an account. Other companies are working to make it easier for an individual to get into an account after the death of the account holder.

Even with these obstacles, it is better to include online accounts in an estate plan. At least someone will know the accounts exist and can work to get into them. Otherwise, they could be lost in cyberspace forever.

Source: USA Today, "Estate plan should pass down digital heirlooms", Sue Doerfler, April 17, 2014

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