Last updated May 2018
The convenience you get from online banking and paperless financial statements can lead to an enormous inconvenience for your heirs: the chore of having to track down your assets after you have passed away.
Trying to find a decedent’s assets has always required a certain amount of detective work. Before the days of online banking, heirs had to sift through files and have future mail forwarded to the estate’s executor to locate accounts. But since there’s often no paper trail for online accounts, heirs can be left in the dark unless you leave behind a detailed list of what you have and where it can be found. Unless you take steps to document your financial affairs, the added difficulty of finding your assets will mean large fees must be paid to professionals to look for them or, in some cases, that assets can never be accounted for and properly allocated.
You might think there’s a way simply to search for all the assets someone has using their Social Security number—after all, you need to provide one to open just about any type of account these days. But although the executor of a will could ask individual banks and other institutions to check for any accounts or unclaimed property using the decedent’s Social Security number, there’s no national database. So, the executor needs a place to start when searching for assets.
Of course, a search for assets is easier if an account pays interest or dividends every year, since a description of the account and institution will be listed as income sources in the decedent’s tax returns (assuming the income was properly claimed). But if you hold a long-term CD, bond, stock shares, or other assets that haven’t realized any gains and won’t for some time, they won’t be listed on past tax returns and heirs may not know of their existence.
So, what should you do to prevent this mess? Unfortunately, even in your paperless financial world, you may need to write down some things. The infographic below indicates what to include.
As an alternative to a paper list, you can use various financial software packages that help organize assets. For example, with Quicken’s Mint.com site, you enter details about all the online accounts you have and it maintains for you in a one-stop spot a view of all your online accounts and balances. Like an online banking site, your information is protected by a user ID, password, and encryption. But unlike a bank’s site, your information is held for you in a “read-only” form, so funds can’t be transferred out by anyone using it.