Personal Finance

Here's what you need to know before storing your will online

Key Points
  • People are storing important documents such as wills and medical directives online. 
  • While convenient, there are a few things to keep in mind before you open another online account, experts say. 
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For Christmas last year, Divergent Wealth Advisors, in Midvale, Utah, decided to give clients a gift that would keep on giving – the firm rolled out an online organizational tool called Everplans, said Richard Collins, managing partner.

Everplans is a technology start-up that helps people store all of their most important digital assets in one place. As consumers have become increasingly comfortable with having even the most important aspects of their lives, such as bank accounts, online, it is a natural next step that estate planning will move online, as well, said Bruno Graziano, a senior analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.

There are some clear benefits to storing important information online, such as portability and ease of access anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection, said Collins. But before you rush to put all of your estate-planning documents online, there are a few things to consider.

It’s good to have everything in one place

One of the most important aspects of having estate planning in place is making sure that executors, beneficiaries and other people who will be affected in the event of your passing are aware of the arrangements beforehand, said Nick Holeman, a senior financial planner at Betterment, an online financial advisor.

For those who are tech-savvy, an online system can be a great tool for a lifetime maintenance plan for an estate, said Louis Pierro, founder and principal of Pierro, Connor & Strauss, a law firm that focuses on estate planning. His firm uses its own online storage system to store electronic versions of important documents.

“Ultimately, when it comes time for their successors, everything is right in front of you,” Pierro said.

An online tool can also help start conversations with clients about a topic that is not the most fun to address, said Collins at Divergent Wealth Advisors. Using one at Collins' firm not only helped clients get involved in their own planning – there are many components that can be done solo – but it also helped advisors talk with clients' families about plans for the future, he said.

Including all of your digital assets

Using an online tool to organize your estate planning can also help with a new and sometimes overlooked group of assets: your online accounts, which should be carefully included.

“Your parents and grandparents took photographs, stuffed them in shoeboxes and put them in the closet,” said Ric Edelman, founder and executive chairman of Edelman Financial Services in Fairfax, Virginia. “That’s not what we do.”

Each online account has its own rules for access in the user agreement, said Marcy Keckler, vice president of financial advice strategy at Ameriprise Financial.

“Some include the ability to name someone who has limited access after your death, other are a little less clear,” she said.

All of these accounts should be included in estate planning so that they can be accessed after death. Otherwise, you run the risk that they will be destroyed. The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act allows those appointed as fiduciaries to access some digital assets in the 45 states and the District of Columbia where it has been enacted, according to the Uniform Law Commission, a state-supported organization that works to bring uniform laws to different jurisdictions.

Mobile financial planning
Mobile financial planning

The 2015 revised law, however, does not give full access of your accounts to your attorney or executors if you have not specified access in a legal document. This means that bank accounts could be accessed, but without specific consent, texts, emails and social media accounts could not. In addition, not all states have passed legislation about digital assets, so it’s important to include in estate planning.

“If you have an executor who is going to be in charge of everything, you want them to have access to all of your accounts,” said Nick Holeman, senior financial planner at Betterment, an online financial advisor.

That includes giving an executor or other trusted individual your password, login information and even the answers to security questions. Holeman said that using a password manager will help keep everything up to date and in one place. There are many products available online at various price points that will organize passwords, keep them secure and allow you to name an executor of your accounts in the event that something happens to you.

Online is not for everyone

Not everyone is comfortable with putting so much sensitive information online, said Graziano from Wolters Kluwer.

“There’s always going to be the question of how secure that stuff is,” he said.

If you’re considering an online tool, make sure you look at its security requirements. Everplans, for example, encrypts all information and adheres to data compliance protocol such as HIPAA for medical documents.

If you have an executor who is going to be in charge of everything, you want them to have access to all of your accounts.
Nick Holeman
senior financial planner at Betterment

If you aren’t comfortable putting something online, you don’t have to, said Collins from Divergent Wealth Advisors. Some clients only store portions of their plan online, or use an online account to save locations of important accounts and documents, he said.

Even “providing your family with the breadcrumbs is very helpful,” said Abby Schneiderman, cofounder and co-CEO of Everplans.

Estate planning still requires expert guidance

It’s also important to note that while online storage is convenient, it should not replace seeking expert advice in estate planning. It also should not replace having physical documents saved in a safe place.

The “legally binding hard-copy signed versions” are the most important, said Keckler from Ameriprise Financial.

There are some instances where you will need a signed document. For example, not all hospitals will accept electronic copies of legal documents such as power of attorney or a health directive, said Edelman.

In addition, different states have varying rules on paper documents. New York State still requires original copies for most legal documents, said Pierro of Pierro, Connor & Strauss.

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Experts recommend storing originals and copies with your attorney, and also in a safe or other secure location in your home with other important documents like birth certificates and marriage licenses.

One thing experts do not recommend is storing estate planning documents in a safety deposit box.

Such boxes are generally frozen in the event of your death, said Holeman from Betterment. There is a complicated process for opening them, said Pierro at Pierro, Connor & Strauss, and if you haven’t named another person on the box, your family would have to go through probate court to access its contents.

Communication and organization are key

No matter where or how you eventually decide to store your estate-planning documents, organizing those documents and communicating your wishes with your family is extremely important.

“People are disorganized, their lives are all over the place,” said Schneiderman from Everplans. “Things are really difficult and they don’t need to be.”

If you wait, you could add unnecessary stress and questions to a time that is already stressful.
Marcy Keckler
vice president of financial advice strategy at Ameriprise Financial

Starting estate planning as early as possible, instead of waiting for a life altering event, is also recommended.

“If you wait, you could add unnecessary stress and questions to a time that is already stressful,” said Keckler from Ameriprise.