The Digital Afterlife: What Role Can Advisors Play?

November 19, 2015

Help clients create an "estate plan" for their digital assets

Last year, I spoke at a conference in upstate New York on the topic of social media. About halfway through, an advisor started asking interesting questions and making bold comments. He was newer to the business and using social media as a tool to build his brand – and from the sound of it, he was succeeding and having a great time doing it.

After the breakout, and over a few glasses of wine, the advisor and I found we shared a passion for the financial planning industry. Over the course of the next year, we met a few times (both on the phone and in person) and we talked strategy, marketing and silly things like my collection of signed C-list celebrity 8×10 “To John” photos (long story) and his penchant for posting pictures of recently departed celebrities on his Facebook page.

It was actually on Facebook a few weeks ago that I learned that my friend had passed away. From what I could tell, it was sudden and his friends and family were all shocked. He left a wife and two young daughters. The outpouring of emotion, stories and grief was moving, as were the many heartfelt condolences sent to the family through posts. Although I never asked, I would guess that he was about my age.

digital afterlifeSince his passing, I have thought about him a few times and as I prepared to write this, I went back to his website, LinkedIn profile, Twitter and Facebook accounts. As I looked at some pictures (and jokes), I wondered who “owns” the accounts now and can his family or business partners access items he posted or were posted about him. In essence, did he do any digital estate planning alongside his financial and estate planning?

Help clients get organized

As advisors, we know that planning for the inevitable is our job description. We talk about retirement and estate planning for clients, but what about a client’s digital assets? If we are doing our job right, we also have to help organize digital property and assets so that when someone passes, the family, business partners and, in some cases, trusted advisors have access to the client’s digital life. To my knowledge, there are a few companies out there trying to build a business doing digital estate planning, but I think you can tiptoe into this area by doing the following:

  • Brand a worksheet with your firm logo, address, etc.
  • For each client, create a worksheet with the client’s name, address and phone number(s) across the top. Create separate columns for each family member; below that, split the column into login name/handle and password.
  • On the left side of the sheet, create a row for each social media account that your clients may have, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
  • Instruct your clients to fill out the form and store it with copies of their will or other estate plan. Use a digital vault, client portal or other tools that may be accessible by their spouse in case of emergency.
  • Have your clients read up (or better yet, you read up) on the digital asset policies from various email providers such as Gmail or Yahoo. Inform your clients what happens to their email accounts when they pass. Make sure your clients have noted what to do with their email accounts.
  • While you’re at it, suggest that your clients invest in an online backup of their computers, instead of relying on a storage drive (I know, not pertinent to this conversation, but still really important)
  • Starting looking at companies that are building businesses in this area. Keep an eye on them, as they may be building services that could work for you in the long run.

Go beyond financials

It only makes sense that as you are nurturing deep relationships with clients, you provide services that will strengthen your bond. It shows you are prepared and think beyond the financial lives of your clients. 

I realize that I am making a business point in this post due to the death of a friend and client, but I think in this case, he wouldn’t mind. He was passionate about helping people and giving sound, practical advice. Maybe this will be one of his legacies, helping clients and advisors even after he is gone. RIP, Scott.

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