Getting Organized For Estate Planning In a Digital World

In an era when the Starbucks mobile app has more money on deposit than some banks, tallying up the assets of an estate is no longer a simple as going down to the safety deposit box. Let’s talk about getting organized in this first of this three-part series on estate planning.

Some aspects of estate planning require the assistance of a lawyer, such as drafting a will or setting up a trust. But other aspects can be handled by clients on their own. A lot of it comes down to good old-fashioned organization.

It’s wise to help your clients start organizing their affairs sooner rather than later. It can be a time-consuming task and will likely require some quiet contemplation and perhaps some family conversation too.

The following thought-starters are designed to help you help your clients organize all of the people and assets – financial, physical, and digital – that should be planned for when it comes to their estate.

Key people

It’s been jokingly said that, if you worry that nobody cares about you, try missing a couple of car payments. It’s true that most of us have many financial as well as personal connections to people who would be affected if we were to pass away. Consider making a list of contact details for the key people and organizations in your client’s life, such as:

  • Family members
  • Close friends
  • Doctors and other care providers
  • Lawyer
  • Accountant
  • Banks or other lenders
  • Insurance companies (life, property, disability)
  • Tenants in any investment property
  • Landlord if the client rents
  • Employers or employees
  • Volunteer organizations
  • Political organizations
  • Churches and charities
  • Clubs or other groups

Financial assets

It’s a good idea to gather copies of statements related to any and all financial assets, so that an executor has all the contact information, account numbers and other details they will need to settle the estate. This list might include:

  • Insurance policies
  • Bank accounts
  • GICs
  • Investment accounts
  • Pension plans
  • Stocks or bonds
  • Shares in private corporations
  • IOUs or receivables

Of course, there may also be liabilities to contend with, such as mortgages, loans or taxes owing. These should be documented too.

Physical assets

A client’s will should address the distribution of any major physical assets, but making a more thorough list of their possessions can serve two purposes. One, it can address objects whose value is mainly sentimental. And two, taking an inventory can sometimes jog memories and uncover possessions that have been lost or forgotten about.

It is wise for your client to note not only what they own, but also where the items are located:

  • Primary residence
  • Cottage or vacation home
  • Undeveloped land
  • Jewelry
  • Art or collectibles
  • Cars, boats, and other vehicles
  • Furniture
  • Keepsakes and mementos

Digital assets

Locating and accessing digital assets is a newer estate planning consideration, and the possibilities are just about endless. It’s smart to document all relevant apps, websites, usernames and passwords.

Social media accounts may not have monetary value, but your client may wish to appoint a “digital executor” to post something on those accounts or shut them down at the appropriate time. Consider the following:

  • Online financial accounts such as banks, credit cards and investments
  • Retail accounts from online stores
  • Social media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter
  • Email and messaging accounts such as Gmail and WhatsApp
  • Streaming accounts such as Netflix and Spotify
  • Photo and video accounts such as Flickr and YouTube
  • Gift card balances such as Starbucks and Amazon
  • Cryptocurrencies, including wallets such as Coinbase
  • Payment apps such as PayPal
  • Software subscriptions such as Dropbox and Adobe

Although not strictly digital in nature, three other helpful pieces of data your client should consider saving are copies of the client’s passport, driver’s license and Social Insurance Number.

Safeguarding information

One tried-and-true method of saving all of this information is a simple binder. Just make the lists, gather the documents, and put them in a binder that is kept somewhere secure, such as in a locked drawer or safe or on file with their lawyer. Your client should tell at least two trusted people where the binder is located and how to access it.

Another method is a virtual safe. These are password-protected online services that let your client store documents and control who has access to them. Of course, one limitation to this approach is you can only store scans or digital copies, not original documents.

As a financial advisor, you can add a lot of value by encouraging your clients to get organized well in advance for their estate planning. It’s a great opportunity for you to be part of an important family conversation. In the process, you can gain visibility into the family’s assets, internal dynamics, and how you may continue to be of service to future generations.

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