NEW YORK (MainStreet) - You know all of those accounts you access regularly online? They're just as much a part of your estate as anything you speak with a bank teller or financial planner about.

Unless someone in your family excels at decryption, those accounts and their passwords need to be a part of your estate planning.

David Walters, a financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Portland, Ore., recommends kicking off the year by reviewing your estate-planning documents, making sure your spouse or some other trusted person has your passwords for your financial accounts and ensuring the correct beneficiaries have access to all of it.

"As part of your estate planning documents, you should include a list of all online accounts and passwords for your executor," Walters notes in Palisades Hudson's book Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. "Your will can stipulate what should be done with email and other online accounts at your death."

By not doing so, you're basically ensuring a worst-case scenario for whoever's left to manage your affairs. Seriously, a simple, update printed list of logins and passwords stashed somewhere safe can mean the difference between immediate closure and a long, drawn-out process to retrieve your information and assets. If you have a list and haven't updated it in a while, the beginning of the year is the perfect time.

If you have password-management software, which is often free, you can just give your spouse or executor the master password, which unlocks all the others. That's not only helpful for bank and brokerage accounts containing financial assets, but the remainder of a "digital estate" that can include a Dropbox account full of photos, email accounts containing years worth of correspondence and social media accounts such as Facebook and LinkedIn. When logins for those are misplaced or flat-out don't exist beyond your memory, those online entities usually have little choice but to delete those accounts if a relative or loved one sees fit to do so.

Doing just about anything else with those digital assets gets really tough without a will. Only seven states have laws addressing online estate planning, which leaves 43 states that put the fate of those accounts within the service contract between the deceased and the online company.

"It's a little bit of the Wild West," Walters says. "Putting your instructions in your will or an addendum to it may not be foolproof, and some vendors may not accept it, but it's at least a good start."

What they will pay attention to, however, is your list of beneficiaries. Your will is great and all, but financial institutions like to see your actual beneficiaries' information attached to your online account before they give anyone access. As a result, all of your online updates should include adding the correct beneficiaries to all of your life insurance policies, annuities and retirement accounts such as IRAs, Roth IRAs, 401(k) plans and similar plans.

"These assets go to the beneficiary or beneficiaries listed on the account regardless of what your will says," Walters says. "So it's crucial that they're correct and up to date."

— By Jason Notte for MainStreet

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