Q&A: Giving executors account access

Dear Liz: We are trying to leave our affairs in order for our executors. (Pity them. We have accounts and substantial assets in England and Canada as well as the U.S.!) Thinking of some immediate expenses they will have, I’ve documented details of how to access our accounts online (passwords coded in a way that only a family member will understand). But am I inviting them to do something illegal?

Answer: If a site has a password, then it probably also has a “terms of service” agreement that prohibits you from sharing that password with someone else. You may be able to add someone else’s name to a financial account, but that’s often not desirable, either because you don’t want to give them access in advance of your death or incapacity, or because doing so could have gift tax implications.

The most practical solution is to create a list of the accounts with your login credentials and make sure your executor knows where to find it. (You probably should have only one executor, by the way, with a couple of backups. This is a big job that grows infinitely more complicated when two or more people have to agree on decisions and sign every document.) You’ll also need to keep the list updated, which can be a big task. A password manager could be a good solution, since your executor would only need to know the master password to access your accounts.

Also make sure your executor has the passwords to your email addresses as well as your computers, tablets and cellphones. Otherwise, the executor might not be able to receive identity-verifying codes and links that allow access to your accounts.

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