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Wealth Matters

Mark Keating, CFP, is a certified financial planner with Willow Creek Wealth Management Inc. (willowcreekwealth.com, 707-829-1146) in Sebastopol. Wealth Matters (nbbj.news/wealthmatters) is a column by the firm's experts.

Life used to be a lot easier, and so was estate planning!

With so much of our financial information and personal information now online, estate plans today must address the fact that our digital selves will surely outlast our human selves.

And that really complicates matters, especially if you are the one left with the unpleasant task of navigating and penetrating the digital maze.

Your online banking account, email accounts, Facebook page and even online photo albums will probably outlive you — leaving family members and estate executors burdened with digital remains that can have important personal and financial value.

Many heirs discover that they have no clear authority to access or manage the online accounts of the deceased even if they have the passwords. Confusing and sometimes contradictory online user agreements and state and federal laws may restrict Internet users’ ability to transfer their online accounts to loved ones after their death and prevent families from retrieving information stored in the digital realm.

New law provides guidance

Fortunately, a law change helps. In Jan. 1, 2017, California passed The Revised Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which permits executors and trustees to gain disclosure of a person’s digital assets after the original user’s death under certain conditions.

This is very important because, until last year, federal and state laws regarding digital access made it difficult for executors and trustees to get such disclosure without a court order.

Just because you may have been named an executor or trustee isn’t enough to gain access to a decedent’s digital assets. Instead, the executor or trustee must provide evidence of the decedent’s consent to disclosure, and, if necessary, get a court order that verified that consent.

The new law gave content providers and privacy advocates with what they most wanted: a requirement of prior consent before disclosure. However, it also makes it easier for executors and trustees to show that the decedent had consented to disclosure, making it easier for them to gain access to digital information.

Protect your digital afterlife

Given the complexity our digital lives present to our future heirs, it’s essential to include online accounts in one’s estate-planning process.

Ignoring this important area of our lives can prevent loved ones from recovering family photos or videos or settling your final bills.

Here is how to update your estate plan to protect your digital afterlife and help your executors and trustees access the information they need to settle your affairs.

1. Take inventory of all your online accounts, including e-mail, social networks, blogging sites, photo-sharing sites, frequent-flier accounts, shopping sites, credit card accounts, and online bill-payment accounts, such as those established with utilities.

For each account, list log-in and password information as well as answers to “secret” questions.

The security of such a list is critical. Consider using a password-management system such as LastPass.com or 1Password (www.agilebits.com).

These services encrypt your log-in and password information and keep it stored on your own computer. You’ll have a master password to unlock the data, so it’s easy to retrieve and update password information.

Another option: Save the list in a password-protected document on your computer. Do not put any password information in your will, as it becomes a public document.

2. When you’ve completed your inventory, write down where you’ve stored the information and the master password needed to access it. Put that information in your safe deposit box or in your attorney’s vault.

Wealth Matters

Mark Keating, CFP, is a certified financial planner with Willow Creek Wealth Management Inc. (willowcreekwealth.com, 707-829-1146) in Sebastopol. Wealth Matters (nbbj.news/wealthmatters) is a column by the firm's experts.

3. Consider signing a statement, which can be drafted by an estate-planning professional, authorizing the companies that hold your online information to disclose that information to your executor or other representative.

4. Update your will or trust granting permission to your executor or trustee to access digital assets.