New Digital Asset Law Passes in Pennsylvania

The new PA digital asset law highlights the need to plan for your loved ones to have access to your digital assets after you pass.

More and more of our lives are lived online. We bank online, use email for everything, have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram accounts, keep photos on the cloud and have usernames and passwords for virtually every part of our online presence.  All of these things could be considered digital asset examples. However, what happens when we become disabled or die and our executor or a fiduciary needs to access these digital assets? Pennsylvania recently joined many states that have passed a law intended to make accessing these accounts easier, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the article “New Pa. law recognizes digital assets in estates.”

The official name of the law is the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, or RUFADAA. Pennsylvania is one of the last states in the nation—48th—to adopt this type of legislation, with the passage of Act 72 of 2020 (FYI Texas readers, the Texas legislature passed the Texas Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (TRUFADAA) in 2017). Until now, Pennsylvania didn’t allow concrete authority to access digital information to fiduciaries. The problem: the ability to access the information is still subject to the agreement that the user has with the online provider. That’s the “yes” we give automatically when presented with a software terms of service agreement.

Online service providers give deference to “legacy” contacts that a user can name if authority to a third party to access their accounts is given. However, most people don’t name a successor to have access or the successor is unaware of it, and most apps don’t have a way to do this.  I just this week received my first prompt from Facebook to name a legacy successor contact, and if Facebook is just starting that process, you can assume most other apps are far behind.

These laws are necessary because administering an estate with digital assets presents unique challenges.  With digital assets, first you have to locate the person’s digital assets (and chances are good you’ll miss a few). There’s no shoebox of old receipts, or letters and bills coming in the mail to identify digital property. The custodians of the online information (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Google, etc.) still rely on those contracts between the user and the digital platform.

Under the digital asset law, if the user does not make use of the online tool to name a successor, or if one is not offered, then the user can dictate the terms of access or non-access to the online accounts through estate planning documents, including a will, trust or power of attorney.  Most quality estate planning attorneys have included access to such assets in the documents they prepare, and we certainly do.

Here are some tips to help administer your digital assets:

Make a list of all your online accounts, their URL address, usernames and passwords. Share the list only with someone you trust. You will be surprised at just how many you have.  I did this a few years ago and was surprised to find it covered four pages.  You should also consider recording login information to your devices where you might store information.  Often people don’t keep paper records, so you can look for information on laptops, phones and similar devices.  Our estate planning binders actually provide a section to do exactly this.

Review the terms of service for each account to see if you have the ability to provide a name for a person who is authorized to access the account on your behalf, such as the Facebook example I provided.

Make sure your estate planning documents are aligned with your service contract preferences. Does your Power of Attorney mention access to your digital accounts? Depending on the potential value, sentimental and otherwise, of your digital assets, you may need to revise your estate plan.  This is especially true as our lives are likely to become even more digital in the future.

If you are interested in learning more on this topic, especially the practical components, Mary Galligan did an excellent article on this topic you can find here.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/does-your-estate-planning-include-your-online-account-passwords/

Remember to never put specific private information in your estate plan such as account numbers, URLs, usernames or passwords, since your will becomes a public document once it is probated and your other documents may be shared as well. Your estate planning attorney will know how to best accomplish documenting your digital assets, while enabling access to them for your fiduciaries.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Aug. 24, 2020) “New Pa. law recognizes digital assets in estates.”

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Creating an End of Life Checklist

Creating an end of life checklist including assets, personal information and locations of important documents will help your family act on your behalf.

Spend the energy, effort, and time now to consider your wishes, collect information and, most importantly, get everything down on paper, says In Maricopa’s recent article entitled “Make an end-of-life checklist.”

The article says that a list of all your assets and critical personal information in an end of life checklist is a guarantee that nothing is forgotten, missed, or lost. Estate planning attorneys can assist you and guide you through the process.  Our firm prepares Estate Planning Binders which include schedules to hold that exact information.  As described here https://www.galliganmanning.com/not-a-little-black-book-but-a-big-blue-estate-planning-binder/  Especially in the age of computers, it’s critical to leave this information for fiduciaries in a way they can find it.  They’ll be glad you did.

Admittedly, it’s an unpleasant subject and a topic that you don’t want to discuss, and it can be a final gift to your family and loved ones.

When you work with an experienced estate planning attorney, you can add any specific instructions you want to make that are not already a part of your will or other estate planning documentation. Make certain that you appoint an executor, one you trust, who will carry out your wishes.

This isn’t a complete list, but consider including the following personal information in your end of life checklist: your name, birthday, and Social Security number, as well as the location of key documents and items, birth certificate, Social Security card, military discharge paperwork (if applicable), medical directives, ID cards, medical insurance cards, house and car keys and details about your burial plot.  Your attorney will give you copies of your estate planning documents, such as your will, trust, documents relating to trust funding, powers of attorney, medical powers of attorney and so on.

In addition, you need to let your family know about the sources of your income. This type of information should include specifics about pensions, retirement accounts, 401(k), or you 403(b) plan.  Be sure to include company and contact, as well as the account number, date of payment, document location, and when/how received.

You also need to include all medicine and medical equipment used and the location of these items.

And then double check the locations of the following items: bank documents, titles and deeds, credit cards, tax returns, trust and power of attorney, mortgage and loan, personal documents, types of insurance – life, health, auto, home, etc. It’s wise to add account numbers and contact information.

Another area you may want to consider is creating a list of online passwords, in printed form, in a secure place for your family or loved ones to use to access and monitor accounts.

Be sure to keep your End of Life Checklist in a secure place, such as a safe or safety deposit box because it has sensitive and private information. Having it in one place will help your family when the time comes to act on your behalf.

Reference: In Maricopa (Feb. 14, 2020) “Make an end-of-life checklist”

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Does Your Estate Planning Include Your Online Account Passwords?

Your estate plan should include a way to access your passwords
Your estate plan should include a way to access your passwords.

With most bank customers receiving financial statements electronically instead of on paper, there are some actions you need to take to be sure your online accounts are incorporated into your estate planning.

Kiplinger’s recent story, Your Estate Plan Isn’t Complete Without Fixing the Password Problem,” says that having online access to investments is a great convenience for us. We can monitor bank balances, conduct stock trades, transfer funds and many other services that not long ago required the help of another person.

The bad thing about these advancements, is that they can make for a very difficult situation for a surviving spouse, the executor of your estate, or the successor trustee of your living trust,  attempting to determine where the assets of a deceased person are held.

This was in the news recently, when the founder and CEO of a cryptocurrency exchange died unexpectedly. Gerry Cotten didn’t share the password to the exchange’s cold storage locker—leaving $190 million in cryptocurrency belonging to his clients totally inaccessible. Investors may never see their funds again.

You can see how important it is that your estate plan provides a way for someone to access your online data, if you become incapacitated or die. This is also true for your other digital assets such as email and social media accounts. It can be a heart breaking situation for a family who wants to access photos and other online memories left behind by a deceased loved one if they are unable to do so because they don’t know the passwords.

The easiest, but least secure, answer is to just give your passwords to a trusted family member or the person you have appointed as executor of your estate or successor trustee of your living trust. Remember, they’ll need the passwords to access your online accounts. They’ll also need a password to access your email, where electronic financial statements are sent.

Another option is to write down and place all passwords in a safe deposit box. But you’ll need to let your agent under a power of attorney, the executor of your estate, or the successor trustee of your living trust, know that the passwords are in your safety deposit box so that they may take steps to access them in the event you are deceased or incapacitated.

But the problem with storing your passwords in a safety deposit box is that it requires diligence to keep the password list updated.

Another option to consider is a password manager, which is an app that keeps track of all your passwords across all your devices. With a password manager, you, or anyone who needs to have access to your passwords, will only need to know one password that, when used, will give access to all your other passwords. That one password may be kept in a safety deposit box, a safe at your home, a locked file drawer, or any other secure location. You should share the password, or the location of the password, with the trusted people who will handle your affairs if you should become incapacitated and after you die.

Finally, your estate planning documents should include provisions that authorize your agent under a power of attorney, the executor of your estate, or the successor trustee of your living trust, to access and manage your social media and online accounts.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 19, 2019) “Your Estate Plan Isn’t Complete Without Fixing the Password Problem”

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