By David Shulman

I’ve written before about estate planning for your digital assets and online accounts. Well this article isn’t necessarily about planning, but what happens after you die – especially if you don’t plan (or even if you do). I do both estate planning and probate and trust administration. That means not only do we help people plan while they are alive, we help their relatives after their loved one dies.

The problem with “digital” probate

As I have written before, probate is the process after a person passes away. It  involves:

  1. Identifying and gathering their assets
  2. Paying off their creditors, and
  3. Distributing the assets to the beneficiaries.

However, as we live more and more of our lives online, there is a problem – when someone dies, how do you identify and gather assets?

Let me tell you how it used to work. Back in the old days – up until about 5 to 10 years ago  – when a person died, their relatives, personal representatives, or attorney, would go to their house and go through their papers. They were usually organized in a file cabinet, or unorganized in a drawer or envelope somewhere. But the stack of papers generally had account statements from their banks, brokerage houses, and the like. Then, when looking at the statements, their relatives could see all the various bills that they were paying, and find out about other accounts – such as hotel or airplane reward accounts.

After going through their papers, their personal representative (what an executor is called in Florida) would then intercept their mail. Not e-mail, but snail mail. Again, after a few months, more statements would come. This would allow the personal representative to gather a complete picture of the decedent’s life. The P.R. could then obtain the assets, cancel the necessary accounts, etc.

Of course, That’s when people still had papers. Today, if you’re under the age of fifty, it’s likely that there are no papers, and you don’t get anything in the mail either.

  • Bank account statements? Online.
  • Stock statements? Online.
  • Hotel affinity points? Online.

Instead of paper statements coming to their mailbox, “digital” statements go to their email address.

So how about having the Personal Representative go through the decedent’s email then?

Well for starters, the executor might not have access to the email accounts, the account providers might not give you the password, oh, and by the way, accessing the decedent’s email may be a federal felony under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The