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Personal Finance What to do about online accounts and assets after death

Some Canadians could be a bit richer than they think, thanks to their digital assets.

Jacob Wackerhausen/Getty Images/iStockphoto

How much are your digital assets worth and what should be done with them upon death or incapacity?

It's a question you should ask yourself as the popularity of online loyalty programs and virtual currencies like Bitcoin continue to grow, especially because many may not realize that these accounts can be as valuable as online bank and investment accounts.

People should also consider the money they have in accounts at sites like Amazon, iTunes and PayPal. But it's not just money that can be valuable, but also the presence you have on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, photo sharing sites and personal websites and blogs.

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"The list goes on and on," said Chris Buttigieg, senior manager of wealth planning strategy at the Bank of Montreal.

"It's really important that people include these intangible assets in their estate plan. And of course, individuals should list what their intentions are for all of these digital assets in terms of how they should be dealt with upon death or incapacity of that person."

Some Canadians could be a bit richer than they think, thanks to their digital assets.

Technology analyst Duncan Stewart estimates the average Canadian now has between $1,000 and $2,000 in value stored online and it's only set to increase in the coming years.

"By 2020, the average Canadian upon death will have stored electronic value north of $10,000," said Stewart, director of research, technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte Canada.

For wealthier Canadians, that value could be about $50,000 by 2020, he said.

"At the $50,000 level, you're starting to talk about some real money there both from the interests of the family of the estate and from the government."

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The Bank of Montreal said digital assets are a relatively new area in estate planning. A recent survey by the bank found that 57 per cent of Canadians had not made any provisions for digital assets in their formal estate plans and the most common answer for not doing so was: "I didn't think of it."

Buttigieg said without instructions to an executor or power of attorney, money could be sitting as virtual currency "without an owner," social media accounts could remain open and vulnerable to hacking and access to online financial accounts could be difficult.

He used the example of a person taking over an online business after a death who might not have all the necessary information.

"Online orders could pile up or bills could stack up," Buttigieg said. "The continuation or succession of that business could be in jeopardy if the person that is succeeding that business can't log on or can't fulfill orders."

Stewart said writing down a list of all digital accounts with passwords might not be enough as verifying accounts becomes more sophisticated with the use of biometrics, which recognize fingerprints, for example.

"As we move beyond password-only storage of things of digital value, it will become significantly more complex than merely a list of passwords," he said.

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Stewart said it's also important to consider the taxes on digital assets and if continued access to these assets would be considered a transfer of wealth from generation to generation after a family member dies.

"Ten years from now, this will be headline news about how multi-billionaires are sheltering their assets from death duties," he said.

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