Locating Deceased Person’s Assets in a Digital Age

4:28 pm Probate

More and more financial institutions are pushing their customers to forgo receiving paper account statements and instead receive all of their statements and account correspondence electronically. What happens, then, when the account holder dies?

In the age before digital communication, when someone died, if the identity and extent of the deceased person’s asset holdings was not apparent to the estate administrator, one simply had to wait a month or so to receive the decedent’s mail to discover most, if not all of the decedent’s financial accounts. Eventually, it would be apparent what accounts were owned by the deceased person.

All of that has changed for someone who does all of their financial business online, however. What happens, then, when a forward-looking, media-savvy loved one dies, and you discover that the deceased person received no paper financial statements, and kept all of her financial data on her computer rather than in paper files?

This problem was faced by a colleague of mine who is assisting with the estate of a deceased security-sensitive computer programmer who had all of his financial affairs on his computer, and who did all of his financial transactions by email or online, and who protected access to his computer and computer transactions with strong passwords that he did not share with anyone.

Because it may be hard to discover what assets the decedent owns for the reasons discussed above, I recommend that people not choose to receive their financial statements exclusively online and that they continue to receive paper account statements through the mail.

Because not everyone does this, however, what should one do if they have a family member who has died and whose financial life is locked away in a password protected computer?

When my colleague faced this issue, she put out a call to other lawyers seeking referrals to technology professionals who could assist in accessing the deceased person’s computer notwithstanding that access to the computer was password protected.

My colleague received the following suggestions:

One reference, https://www.compforensics.com/mark-lanterman, was identified as a national expert, and the referring party suggested that his services “might not come cheap.”

Another reference, https://www.forensicon.com, had been engaged by a lawyer “in a litigation setting, with good results.”

Another respondent to the inquiry advised that “A simple google search of computer forensic services in Maryland yields a few seemingly reputable agencies, namely: https://catzen.com/ and http://burgessforensics.com/”

Yet another attorney had previously engaged the services of SBG Computer Consulting (sbg_consulting@verizon.net) to assist in retrieving all of the business and personal computer data from a deceased person’s computer that had been deleted by someone before or after the person had died.

When someone dies leaving no evidence of their financial assets except for computer files that are not accessible to surviving family members and the estate administrator, then the estate administrator will be required to obtain technical assistance from professionals such as those mentioned above in order to inventory and take control of the deceased person’s assets.

Please note that neither I nor the Gatesman Law Office have had any experience with the technical professionals referenced above, and my mention of them in this article is in no way an endorsement of those service providers. Nevertheless, I have included their contact information as a point of reference for anyone seeking to do research in this area.

Moreover, I would recommend that any person seeking to access a decedent’s financial data stored on the decedent’s computer first consult with legal counsel well versed in dealing with decedent’s estates to ensure that such person not take a misstep with respect to the decedent’s estate.