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Digital assets often omitted from financial planning


Lake Forest, Illinois economist Mike Moebs, seen here with Missy, revamped his personal and business trusts to include all his digital assets, including the Janis Joplin album "Pearl."

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CHICAGO — As Lake Forest, Ill., economist Mike Moebs planned for his marriage last year, his lawyer pressed him for a complete list of assets.

Initially, the frequent-flier miles detailed in his online travel records didn't even cross Mr. Moebs' mind until his family law attorney recognized the value of an asset he largely manages online.

"We gave a lot of thought to the things I own," Mr. Moebs said. "I've flown, just on American Airlines, more than 3 million miles, and I have a half a million miles I haven't used."

To prepare for the worst, Mr. Moebs has created an inventory of user names, passwords, and answers to security questions for more than 50 accounts, including online bank and investment records, and billing setups for credit cards and phone bills.

His family and close business colleagues can access them in the event of his death or incapacitation.

Family heirlooms and records aren't what they used to be. Valuables ranging from photos and music to financial statements and tax documents increasingly are likely to be created, stored, or accessed via computers, mobile phones, or other devices. "I'm revamping my personal and business trusts to include all digital assets and what I want done with them," Mr. Moebs said.

He appears to be far ahead of the curve. Estate planners, lawyers, and surveys indicate that few people have begun revising their family and estate plans to keep pace with the new reality of digital assets and online accounts.

In a recent survey by BMO Retirement Institute, more than half of respondents age 45 and older with digital property say it's very or somewhat important to put plans in place for their personal and financial online assets, yet 57 percent of them haven't made such provisions.

When asked why, the two most common answers were "didn't think of it" and "I don't think it's necessary."

Chicago lawyer Richard Mag- none suggests a reason: "People don't think of digital assets in the same way as tangible assets."

Yet not accounting for passwords and other online records could leave grieving loved ones or business associates unable to access accounts promptly, keep finances current, or continue to run a business.

And unless such provisions are made, some email providers might deny family members access to the deceased's accounts, often a doorway to other online assets.

Take Yahoo Inc.'s terms of service, found under a link on its home page. At nearly the end of its eight pages is a reference to "no right of survivorship and nontransferability."

Several states have passed laws addressing various digital concerns, but the legislation varies greatly. As a result, the Uniform Law Commission, also known as the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, has a committee that is drafting recommendations for state legislatures to enact concerning the rights of a fiduciary to manage and distribute digital assets, copy or delete digital assets, and access digital assets.

A fiduciary who is administering an estate or the affairs of an incapacitated individual needs to be able to find, access, value, protect, and transfer the individual's online accounts and digital property, the commission said. Because of the need to protect against fraud and identity theft, in recent years it has become increasingly difficult for fiduciaries to get access to digital information promptly and efficiently, the commission said.

Gerry Beyer, a Texas Tech University law professor who writes about estate-planning issues, said that even if a person gives a power of attorney to an agent to access their digital assets, that doesn't mean that the bank, social media site, or email service will accept that authority. It might take a court-appointed guardian to get access to the records, he said.

Mr. Moebs traces his move to go digital to 2003. That year, his Lake Forest home sustained major flood damage, and century-old family photographs were destroyed.

"This is never going to happen again," Mr. Moebs said he promised himself.

In recent years, he has digitized many of his photographs and a music-album collection that includes a 78 RPM by Enrico Caruso that he inherited from his father, a 78 RPM Invitation to the Dance: Strauss Waltzes by Al Goodman & His Orchestra, Pete Fountain & Al Hirt's New Orleans Jazz, Janis Joplin's Pearl, and Mario Lanza's Student Prince.

His Outlook has about 100,000 emails. He said that his wife, Valerie, and key colleagues at his 10-employee business know how to get access to his Outlook account in case of an emergency.

His two "right-hand" employees and his wife have the information they need to access digital assets, pay suppliers, and contact customers.

"The three of them need each other, if something should happen to me," he said. "Valerie would own the digital assets of the business, and my two employees would be able to use the information off the digitized assets, mainly the data" needed to continue running the business.

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