Heirs Might Miss What's in Online Accounts

When a family member dies, without proper documentation, heirs can easily miss out on money in online accounts.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A retired restaurant owner spends his free time on the Internet opening bank accounts and investing in stocks.

    The restaurant owner dies, leaving the heirs without an inventory of his online bank accounts.

    Without proper documentation, the executor of his estate could easily miss an account that could have a lot of money in it.

    "The less information the deceased leaves, the more work it is for the heirs," said John C. Bradley Jr., a partner in the Wyomissing firm of Masano Bradley LLP, specializing in estates and wills. "It can become very time consuming.

    "It's important that when someone prepares a will that they have a list of the accounts ready," he said, noting that it's not hard to track down assets in an account with an online-only bank, like ING, but only if the heirs and executor know it exists.

    In the past five years, consumers have been doing more and more of their banking transactions online, including cyber accounts that are available only online.

    Berks County lawyers who concentrate in wills and estate planning, said the online accounts are just another asset and they advise clients to include an up-to-date inventory with their wills, to make the distribution of assets a lot less painful and costly.

    They predict that in the next decade young adults will do all of their banking online.

    "The kids will not be walking into a bank," said C. Thomas Work, chairman of estate and trust practice group at Stevens & Lee, Reading. "The new generation is doing all of their banking online. They don't know where banks are located."

    Work said clients are putting their money into cyber financial institutions such as ING and Ameritrade.com.

    But, he said, that these type of accounts are just the tip of the iceberg.

    "If you do business with the large financial institutions, they encourage you to do everything online," Work said. "Once you get use to it, it's really neat."

    Work, who has been doing estate work for 35 years, said that about 15 years ago he started advising his clients to write a letter of intent to go along with a will to make it easier for heirs.

    The letter should contain all relevant information on assets, including passwords for online accounts, he said.

    "There is a lot of grief and emotions when you lose someone close," Work said. "Having the account passwords takes away a step for the lawyers and takes away a lot of anxiety."

    Work said having a roadmap to the assets ready makes the settlement of an estate a lot easier.

    Brian R. Ott, partner and head of the trust and estates practice group Barley Snyder of Reading, said it's often a challenge to discover assets, especially if the deceased was not organized.

    "In years past, you could not find a stock certificate," Ott said. "With online banking, it's another challenge. Passwords are not locatable."

    "We have situations where executors walk in with shoe boxes of documents they have found in the house," Ott said. "Other clients are very organized and have everything on a spreadsheet."

    Ott said if financial affairs are organized in advance, legal fees are reduced.

    Ott said many people will avoid the topic of writing a will.

    "People will push the topic off because they don't want to think of their own mortality," Ott said. "It may not be a topic parents want discuss with the next generation."

    Ott said that he had a case in which a daughter drove her mother to the bank every week and the mother didn't say what she was doing.

    "The child later found a safe deposit box stuffed with cash," Ott said.

    Ott said that cyber assets are just another place where assets can hide.

    "People need to organize their financial affairs for the sake of their family," Ott said. "The sad situations are when people's mental faculties are declining."

    Phillip J. Edwards, solicitor for the Berks County Register of Wills and partner in the law firm Linton, Distasio & Edwards, PC, said online accounts do not change the way wills are probated.

    Edwards said that if the access information on all accounts is not provided it could be difficult for the attorney or executor to track the assets.

    "The less information provided, the greater chance you will miss something," Edwards said.

    Phillips said the more difficult wills typically are those involving an elderly parent who lives on the other side of the country and the heirs have not assisted in taking care of the financial affairs.

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