Financial advisors have always had to push clients to keep wills and estate plans up to date. In today’s online world, advisors have an added duty: to make sure that if a client dies his or her digital assets are in order and accessible.

Digital assets, including banking and investing accounts, e-mail accounts, photos, blogs, bitcoins and money accounts such as PayPal, are usually password protected. Some of them have real value and others might have sentimental value to heirs.

What happens if the financial advisor or fiduciary cannot access these accounts after a client dies? Many of the accounts might be lost, frozen, deleted or even stolen by a hacker, said Jennifer Davis, a trusts and estates attorney in St. Louis.

Forty-one states and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed laws to allow a financial planner or other fiduciary to have access to digital assets upon a client’s death, and four other states plus the District of Columbia are considering legislation.

Under the Missouri law, known as the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, a fiduciary may be granted access to a person’s electronic records or digital assets in a will, trust, power of attorney or another similar document. The Missouri measure was signed into law June 1 and is based on a model bill.

“The manner in which we live our personal lives and handle our business and financial affairs has evolved with a clear shift to the internet,” said Davis, a lawyer with Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, and a member of the drafting committee for the Missouri legislation. “Digital assets have become part of our daily lives. As a result of this change, it is important to consider digital assets when preparing your estate plan in order to protect those assets at your death.”

If these assets are neglected, it creates challenges for the heirs and financial planners because they have to balance privacy rights with the need to settle an estate. In one well-publicized case, a family had to resort to legal action to recover the e-mails of their son, a Marine killed overseas, for use in a scrapbook, Davis said.

Automatic bill payments have to be stopped and banks need to know who can access accounts, she added.

Davis said estate attorneys and fiduciaries should have clients prepare an inventory of all digital assets, including a description of each asset as well as how it can be accessed with user names, passwords and answers to security questions. The information should be stored in a safe deposit box or a password-protected digital location. The estate plan should be updated to say how the person wants the digital assets handled and who should have access.

If the client does not provide an inventory, the financial planner or fiduciary may have to do it, Davis said.

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