Paperless World Can Leave Heirs in the Dark

As people increasingly go “paperless” — using the online features of banks and brokerages to manage their accounts — it’s complicating the process of helping your heirs sort out your finances once you’re gone.

The problem: If you don’t keep careful records, your family might not even know where to start looking for accounts. In a worst-case scenario, some assets may never be found.

But at the same time, you don’t want to recklessly list all your private financial-account passwords somewhere for a bad guy to find. That would be an invitation to theft.

There are several smart steps to take to build a roadmap to your assets. The five key components: information about your assets, names of advisers, details about safe-deposit boxes, your estate-planning documents, and a few other important documents.

For starters, provide details about banking and brokerage accounts, insurance policies, real-estate and retirement plans, and list account numbers.

Explain where to find your will, trust, power of attorney and other estate documents. If you have a safe-deposit box, give the bank’s name and address, and where you keep the keys. If you have a life-insurance policy, provide the name and phone number of the agent, and a copy of the policy or its number.

Consider listing all the people your heirs will need to contact, including lawyers, accountants, executors or guardians you’ve named to care for any minor children.

Here’s what not to include: Your passwords to online accounts. Listing all your passwords in one place — no matter where it’s stored — is risky. And anyway, your heirs won’t need them. For instance, with some assets like bank accounts, heirs can sometimes gain access by showing a copy of a death certificate and proof of designated beneficiaries.

Another important, but often overlooked, item to include: computer passwords, if you keep back copies of potentially important financial paperwork (like old tax returns) on your PC.

Your financial planner or estate-planning attorney can provide additional guidance in putting together a file meeting your particular needs. For instance, Fidelity Investments offers its brokerage clients an online tool, My Estate Plan Organizer, that guides you through the process of putting together a complete document.

Lastly, think carefully about how to store the list. Heirs need to be able to locate it when needed (and you need to be able to update it with a minimum of hassle) but it shouldn’t be generally accessible. One option: a fire-resistant home safe, where you should also be keeping, say, your passport or other items you may need to access more quickly than things in a safe-deposit box. You might also give a copy to your lawyer to keep with other estate-planning documents.

As a general rule, don’t keep a copy on your computer. But if it is kept there, make sure your computer is as safe as possible from hackers, and is password-protected.

After all, you can’t take it with you — but you wouldn’t want someone else to take it from you.

Source: Associated Press By Kaja Whitehouse (The Wall Street Journal) May 21, 2007