The Community Link, a newspaper serving eastern Ventura County, published “Securing Your Documents and Electronic Assets, Securing Your Wishes” in the October 2017 issue. The article is published in its entirety below, or see Community Link, and scroll through to page 11.
We hear the horror stories daily. Equifax, Yahoo, IRS, Sony Kaiser have been hacked. The identities of thousands of individuals are stolen every day. It’s bad enough, when we lose our personal information to cyber thieves through negligence of our own, but we must also contend with trusted corporate and other sources being hacked seemingly on a regular basis.
The recent computer breach of personal credit data held by Equifax may affect nearly half of the entire United States population – some 143 million people. Needless to say, identity theft is all too common a problem that can wreak havoc on your life and also have a significant impact on your estate plan.
Without proper safeguards, wills, powers of attorney, healthcare directives, and other estate planning documents could be used by identity thieves, which could cause your plans to go up in smoke. Once you die, if someone who is not authorized to act on your behalf accesses the documents that contain your personal and financial information, your heirs could be hard pressed to thwart the criminals and obtain what is rightfully theirs.
So, how do these bad people get good information that can harm you and yours? Sometimes the perpetrator is a family member, who may already have access to the data needed to commit fraud. The majority of the time, however, family members of someone who dies are grieving and distracted by their loss, which could open up opportunities for unscrupulous visitors, caretakers, and others.
Even someone who learns of the death through newspaper obituaries or other sources can swoop in unexpectedly and gather enough information to commit their crime. It could be as simple as someone going through the deceased’s trash to pick out old credit card statements or other sensitive documents.
With personal information in hand, identity thieves could potentially open up credit card accounts in the name of the deceased individual or even file a final tax return in their name before heirs have a chance to do so. If an estate goes into probate, part of the process involves satisfying outstanding debts. If someone has extended credit using the name and personal information of the deceased, the court could end up ruling that money from the estate must be paid to those creditors, even if the debt did not belong to the person who died. It can be extremely difficult to prove identity theft and/or recoup lost money.
You can do everything right. You can use long and convoluted passwords, conjure up unique user names, regularly monitor your bank accounts and credit, order a credit freeze, install computer antivirus software, and download the latest updates on the apps for your smart devices. No matter how well you protect your personal information, you are still at risk of identity theft while you are living, but your estate may also be in jeopardy after your death.
While it’s important to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney for yourself and for elder or incapacitated relatives for whom you may be responsible, here are a few of the basic precautions that should help mitigate the potential problem after a death:
- Continuously monitor the credit and other financial assets of the decedent until the estate is closed.
- Contact each of the three, major credit reporting bureaus and place a “Deceased – Do Not Issue Credit” notice to protect the decedent’s identity from being used to establish credit for another individual.
- Take steps to ensure personal information, such as the deceased’s social security number, does not appear on any document that could be made available to the general public, including files arising from probate or other transactions related to the death.
Of course, it is also important to have a thorough discussion in advance of death about finances, estate planning, and other topics with your loved ones so that everyone is better prepared to recognize the warning signs of identity theft. An estate planning attorney can help you understand how such conversations can help you and what they might mean for your comprehensive estate planning strategy.
In today’s digital age, identity theft is something that should concern everyone. Consider having your estate planning attorney prepare a living trust and powers of attorney that will grant legal authority to someone you trust to monitor important accounts and documents, if you cannot due to death or incapacity. Include in your estate plan a checklist for your executor or personal representative that identifies what needs to be tracked and what entities need to be immediately notified upon your death.
The United States Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offer information, tips and advice on how to successfully avoid identity theft. If you do become a victim of identity theft, the FTC also provides a means of reporting your circumstances and developing a recovery plan. Go to www.identitytheft.gov.
If you have been a victim of identity theft, you know how difficult it can be to set things right while you are alive. It is even more difficult for an estate administrator to do, after a death, so be prepared.
At Terri Hilliard P.C., we provide a safe and effective program that uses bank-level security measures to keep your documents safe, but also accessible to you 24/7, providing control over inventory of assets and accounts for your heirs and loved ones when you are gone. You should have peace of mind in knowing your assets and your wishes will be well cared for during and after your lifetime. Give us a call to discuss these safeguards at 805-201-2552 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.