Digital assets complicate estate planning

Because of the growth of online banking and Because of the growth of online banking and Internet stock trading, many of these assets are no longer paper-based and are hard for family members to trace and find. Photo Credit: iStock

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The term "estate planning" can evoke images of a simpler time of ivy-covered mansions, safe deposit boxes filled with stock certificates, drawers crammed with bank books and shoe boxes filled with photos. A will would often suffice in passing assets to the heirs in those slower turn-of-the-century years — like 1999.

"Estate planning in the traditional sense is not going to cut it these days," says Tina Di Vito, head of Toronto-based BMO Retirement Institute. "You are putting yourself and your family at tremendous risk."

A new report from the institute found that boomers and seniors have accumulated a staggering amount of "digital assets." Because of the growth of online banking and Internet stock trading, many of these assets are no longer paper-based and are hard for family members to trace and find. But when surveyed, 57 percent of respondents told BMO they had made no provisions in their estate plans specifically for these digital assets. "You can open any financial planning journal, any magazine, you will see the words IRA and 401(k)," Di Vito says. "You will rarely see information on digital assets."

Di Vito says that family members often find they can't even access the computer of their deceased loved one because they don't know the logon password. Even if they do, they are faced with an endless array of user IDs and passwords to access any accounts. If the owner of a family business dies, survivors might not be able to get the business up and running until they get access to payroll, accounts receivables and other crucial information. And chances are those photos you recently snapped at your grandkids' birthdays and other special events were taken with a digital camera and are on a disk drive, not in a scrapbook.

In planning, you may also want to include a broader circle of loved ones than just your immediate family. If you do regular caregiving chores for extended family or friends, it may be good to mention your tasks and schedule, so someone can take over where you left off. And what about your four-footed loved ones? You probably consider your pets to be family members, so it's also a good idea to stipulate who will care for them if they outlive you. Di Vito notes that most financial planners will not specifically bring up the subject of pets, but you should. And don't be afraid your request will engender snickers. "You will not be the first person to have raised this issue," she says.

To read the report, go to bit.ly/BMO-retirement.

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