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Beth Pinsker: This easy, free iPhone hack could be the most important estate planning move you make

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You might think the most valuable things you have on your iPhone to leave behind after you die are your photos that are (hopefully) backed up in the cloud.

But take two minutes to set up a legacy contact for your mobile device. This simple, free step could make an enormous difference to your loved ones, allowing them to follow your financial road map should something happen to you. 

“It may be some of the most meaningful estate planning you can do,” says David Jones, head of estate planning at Bailard, a wealth-planning firm based in San Francisco.

Last year, Apple
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launched this new legacy contact feature, which allows you to designate a trusted person to be able to access your phone should you die. It was mostly of interest to techies as an iPhone trick, but it ended up resonating greatly with estate planning professionals who are always grappling with the new complexities of our digital lives. Data that a legacy contact can access include photos, contacts, reminders, files and health data.

The process is as simple as clicking a few buttons in your phone settings, under passwords and security, and then either printing the code or sending it to the person you picked to store how they wish. Instead of the previous process of filing legal paperwork and waiting for approval, your designee just needs the code that’s generated and a copy of a death certificate, and then they can open your phone and see what you see. 

Alphabet’s
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Google has a process you can use with Android phones, through its inactive account manager, but it may still require some paperwork, and you can work through the carrier too.

It’s also a good idea to relay password information for social media accounts like Facebook
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and other services, but those won’t have the same estate planning impact. Given that our phones have become nearly extensions of our brains, they are the essential to unlocking a person’s financial life if they aren’t around to narrate. 

“My entire life is in my phone,” says Andrew Crowell, vice chairman of wealth management at D.A. Davidson, an investment bank. “It’s like if you turned the clock back 30 years and all my vital docs were in a safe-deposit box. Somebody needs to know where the key is.”

Your loved ones need you to have a plan

It’s hard to get people to think about estate planning, even as baby boomers are about to transfer trillions of dollars to the next generation. That paperwork can be complicated, and can cost several thousand dollars if you’re setting up a trust of some kind.

D.A. Davidson found in a recent survey that only 66% of adult Americans did not have an estate plan. A similar two-thirds also lacked a healthcare power of attorney, which is important if you are incapacitated and need somebody to make decisions for you. Of those that did have a plan, only 20% had updated it in the past five years. The most common reason people delayed planning: They didn’t think they had enough money to merit the bother. 

But even if you don’t have a lot of money, you still leave behind a life that somebody has to close out. A will or trust lets you leave specific instructions for giving away assets, but there’s a lot more that you have to do to settle a deceased person’s financial life — not the least of which is file their last tax return and deal with all their accounts.

Estate planning often takes care of the big things but can miss some elements, from minutiae like a forgotten monthly subscription to accounts nobody else knew about like savings bonds or cryptocurrency. 

Having access to a person’s phone is important, especially for those who leave no other instructions, but it even matters for those who do.

“Your will might say something like ‘I leave all my tangible property to my spouse,’ but that just gives that person the right to take the phone, not to anything inside of it. You can do the legacy contact to have easy access to it,’ says Lisa Featherngill, the national director of wealth planning at Comerica Bank. 

A very un-fun scavenger hunt

It’s not easy to drop in and navigate somebody else’s financial life. especially when you’re doing it in the middle of grieving. So think about your loved ones for a second and what mess you’d be leaving them with. Don’t you want to make it as easy for them as possible? 

You don’t want them having to look through baby books in attics for a copy of your birth certificate, or through boxes in a garage for armed forces discharge papers or divorce decrees. They often have to collect mail for a year and hope they catch all the account statements they need. The least you can do is leave a trace on your phone of all of these things and give your loved ones a place to start. 

Featherngill experienced this herself two years ago when her mother died.

“She had a horrible memory, so we had a lot of her passwords written down,” she says. “But, yes, it was a scavenger hunt. It’s not like you’re getting statements for I-bonds, or people with crypto, you wouldn’t know that either. I don’t get statements for anything hardly at all anymore.”

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