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The Planning Area Most Advisors Don’t Know About (but Should)

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Written by: Amy Sitnick | SEI

Deactivating a Client’s Digital Real Estate 

Have you experienced this scenario?

You’re checking your Facebook account at the end of the day and you see terrible news. Your friend Maria’s husband, Robert, who has been sick, has passed away. You express your condolences and share happy memories of what the person meant to you.

But then six months goes by. It’s Robert’s birthday. You see numerous people posting on his Facebook wall, saying how much they miss him. Others who aren’t aware of Robert’s passing write things like “Let’s get together soon.” This is awkward for the loved ones, anyone who’s connected to the family, and probably soon for the unaware well-wishers themselves.

Today’s blog post isn’t exactly a happy one to write, however, I think it’s an important one for you to read and be familiar with.

Who’s in charge when it comes to digital property? Who wants to approach a widow who is grieving about taking down the deceased’s account? Do family members have the right to access their loved ones’ account after a death? Would the individual who has passed want family members to access their content, or to have the account removed? Is it possible to commemorate the individual by memorializing the individual’s account?

In our exploding digital world, it’s essential to help clients plan for both their real-life estates, but also their digital estate plan as well.

The Growing Importance of Digital Real Estate Planning

These conversations go well beyond social media. They’re important for all the digital assets of the individual, including email accounts and websites for online bill paying, retail accounts such as PayPal, photo sharing and more. These sites contain sensitive personal information and financial data that could pose privacy concerns if left unattended indefinitely.

Let’s get started by reviewing end-of-life planning and guidelines for discontinuing the social media accounts of a loved one. For our purposes today, we’ll discuss the most popular social networking sites.

Wait – Is Social Media Planning Really an Advisor’s Job?

You might wonder if this is actually your role as a financial advisor. However, I think this is a major planning need for your clients, and one they may not be thinking about. It’s one where you can provide a real benefit.

In general, social media users have not yet realized this is an issue and it is a big one. As an advisor, your role in these sensitive conversations can be helpful in a little understood space and can help provide respect to an individual who has passed. So, despite its morbidity, it’s important to address it with clients.

After all, as your client’s financial advisor, they’ve entrusted you with growing and protecting their wealth and achieving their personal financial goals. Your ability to collaborate across family relationships and with other advisors such as attorneys on sensitive topics uniquely positions you to raise this topic.

If these choices are made before a death and carefully planned, individuals have a better chance of making sure their digital assets are handled exactly the way they would want them to be – protecting both their privacy and their legacy.

In addition, you can benefit from additional client stickiness if you advise clients on the issue and provide tools to help them.

I’m not suggesting that you actually perform this service on the individual’s behalf – that’s up to you. However, I’d like to provide you with some pointers to pass along to the family – and tips for you to consider for your own planning needs.

Tactful End-of-Life Planning for Digital Real Estate

With social media adoption at all time highs, we’re truly only beginning to deal with this topic. In my opinion, it will eventually become commonplace to discuss social media and a person’s digital footprint when preparing long-term financial plans and wills.

Right now, most people don’t know where to start. One thing is certain – no one wants to put their loved ones in the awkward position of having to decide what to do with their accounts during this sensitive time period.

But how? Here are some pointers:

  • Incorporate social media account transition into planning conversations, especially with multiple generations. Some key questions to ask:
    • What social media platforms does the individual use?
    • What are the person’s passwords?
    • What would the individual like to happen to their accounts upon their death?
  • Document the stated goals and if applicable, share these with the client’s attorney or whomever your client deems as their Digital Executor.”
  • Leverage Technology. There are many client portals available today to house important client documents. Estate Assist is one service designed especially for investors as well as advisors to archive vital family information, including social media accounts and passwords.
     

When Someone Passes Suddenly: Planning Considerations for the Unplanned

When individuals pass suddenly or if they haven’t outlined their wishes for terminating a social media account, each of the major social media channels will typically request legal documentation in order to begin the closure process (check out this helpful infographic from Mashable).

However, this is a very new area and each of these sites is in its infancy in terms of putting together policies.  We have heard of heartbreaking stories of people who have put all of their photos on Facebook and haven’t provided anyone with their password. Upon their passing, Facebook was not able to give the family access to the account and all of the photos were lost.

Here’s a quick run down of what is required when discontinuing a social media account:

• Facebook:  Facebook has two options for what to do with a deceased family member’s account.

  • Memorializing a Profile: This feature allows the account to be viewed but not edited (with the exception of a Legacy Contact now being allowed to make one final post, usually regarding funeral arrangements, etc.)
  • Terminating an Account: An individual can deactivate a profile by completing Special Request for Deceased Person’s Account; it is necessary to provide your relationship as well as a copy of the individual’s death certificate, the deceased person’s birth certificate, or proof of authority.

• LinkedIn: You have two options to handle a deceased person’s account.

Who Can Do It: In LinkedIn’s case, it doesn’t need to be an immediate family member to terminate an account. It can be any one of the following: Immediate family (spouse, parent, sibling, child), extended family (grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin), non-family (friend, co-worker, classmate).

• Twitter: Twitter will work with the estate or immediate family members to remove an account.

  • What is needed: Fax Twitter copies of the death certificate and your government-issued ID (such as a driver’s license), along with a signed, notarized statement and either a link to an online obituary or a copy of the obituary from a local paper.
  • Who can do it: A verified immediate family member of the deceased or a person authorized to act on the behalf of the estate.

• YouTube: Since YouTube is now affiliated with Google, you need to reference the policies on Google’s site. Google has a process in place for immediate family members and representatives. It provides for a number of options, including closing the account and requesting funds from the account.

Keep in mind that social media accounts often change their policies and it’s important to revisit procedures even after you’ve had a conversation about terminating a person’s digital assets.

In Memoriam

What do you think about this topic? Have you counseled clients through these complex issues created by our brave new world? If yes, what has been your experience? If not, what other questions do you have?

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