Over the last several years, I’ve crisscrossed this country preaching the importance of digital asset estate planning. I’ve met some of the most amazing attorneys and their clients. I always learn something new, which continues to fuel my excitement to be in this field.
I’ve come to learn that your clients invest their time and money with you to protect their legacy and ensure loved ones are taken care of. They expect a return…the assurance that their goals will be met.
Here’s the challenge: your clients now expect your practice to make the most of technology as with every other professional they do business with. Their financial advisor has a portal where they can store and access their data. Their doctor’s office does too. They expect the same from your practice.
Trust and Estate practitioners who are thriving know the value of incorporating technology into their practice. You probably already use a case management system, a time/billing system, and maybe you’re among the few who have moved to an automated intake system. But there’s more.
Now you have to think about technology for other service areas, and it may be those that you haven’t considered yet. Your clients are increasingly dependent upon technology to conduct their daily lives and effective planning needs new ideas and tools. They’ve built a portfolio of digital assets, and created a digital footprint. Have you addressed how this property will be treated in your estate plan?
The complexities and challenges that come with digital property cannot be dismissed or brushed aside. Not for the client. Not for the loved ones and representatives. And not for the fiduciaries or advisors. It’s expanded to be so large, so fast, that even the best laid plans are not enough. Like a pot of water boiling over, digital property is flowing out of control and in several directions all at once.
With digital property and accounts, what once were outliers are now the norm. In many estate plans being created today, documents only touch upon digital property. They steer clear of handling the depths necessary to fully execute on a client’s goals during administration. How do you find assets? How do you ensure accessibility to necessary information? How do you protect against fraud?
Just as you rely on billing systems, you can now rely on a digital platform to outsource client digital assets. To demonstrate this, I need to share a story, that opened my mind to the power of a service that delivers relief to all involved.
In January of this year, I lost a friend of mine to suicide. In his mid 50s with a family, Steve* from all appearances had a very good life, showing no signs of what he was going to do. He was simply taking care of his responsibilities. His lawyer was unaware of Steve’s ultimate plan.
Together, they developed a plan that would accomplish his goals. He worked diligently to ensure every detail was covered and that everyone was taken care of. Unfortunately, one area he didn’t thoroughly consider…digital property. He didn’t plan on the challenge that was to be laid on those left behind for dealing with digital assets and online accounts. He did what many of us to believe would be simple…created a list of accounts with passwords. Days after his passing, it became clear to his wife that the undertaking was more than she can handle…both emotionally and administratively.
Steve had over 100 accounts that needed some type of action. That’s less than the 170 the average person has today. This number of accounts didn’t include the 10 or so financial accounts he held, visible and being taken care of. There was a lot and if we consider the time spent on each action, it would take tens, possibly hundreds, of hours to address each one. Customer service calls, searching and providing the correct information, submission of the all the materials, it a heavy lift. And this is only for the accounts that are known…what about those that need to be found?
Some of you are asking the right question- would provisions work? Maybe. But do you want to play account manager, dealing with Customer Service departments and appealing their process? Do you think the loved ones know about or even want to do this? Probably not. They’ll feel overwhelmed and may not even be capable to do the job. And if they turn to you, are you prepared? Can you imagine what that bill looks like?
Here’s another example: One of our family of lawyers spent about three hours dealing with Treasurydirect.gov and couldn’t get anywhere. In about 15 minutes, we had the information available and able to help. Now imagine doing that for 30-50 accounts, or more. Hours add up but is that the best use of your time? And how will that sound for referrals from the family to others?
With all this momentum, why are T&E attorneys still resistant to employ or encourage technology to accomplish their client’s goals. Liability? I can see that argument. But what’s the risk of speculation and failing? Will provisional language will be effective for identifying valuable property hidden in accounts and apps? And will that website or app owner honor the request for contents disclosure? Or worse, do you recommend solutions like password sharing (aka account holder impersonation), opening the door for more liability, fraud, and reputational disparagement if the PW is nefariously used.|
Younger clients, as with most clients, step into planning with trepidation. They are looking for different qualities than prior generations and they expect to be met on their terms. They have alternatives, and are more comfortable with online solutions. They’re comparing you to other firms, DIY programs and online legal professionals. One thing is for sure, clients looking to build a plan are seeking out technology and lawyers who use it.
Are you ready to take the next step?
*Name has been changed for this article.