As we move further into the “electronic age,” we seem to spend more of our lives online. Many of us have an ever-expanding digital footprint using accounts that store sensitive personal and financial information. These may include email accounts, website domain names, online banking accounts and passwords, and countless personal and business documents stored in the cloud. You may also have accounts with:
The contents of all of these accounts are generally considered private property, which is why they are protected by usernames and passwords. It’s important to include your “digital assets” in your estate plan, so someone has access to them in the event of your death or disability.
For example, you may need your bills paid online or other financial accounts managed, not to mention what you would like done with your email accounts, online photos, and other digital assets. You might want a trusted loved one to access your email account or your Facebook page to notify your friends and contacts of a sudden change. You might want playlists or photos downloaded and preserved for your children or other family members. And you would definitely want to provide your online banking information to your executor or trustee for hassle-free administration of your estate.
As a practical matter, there are several options for including your digital assets in your estate plan.
One option is to dispose of these assets using your Will or Trust. Due to the nature of digital assets, this option could prove unwieldy at best. Technology changes so rapidly that it is difficult to keep a Will or Trust current that itemizes ever-changing digital assets. Passwords change frequently, as do digital assets themselves. Ten years ago, you might have had a Hotmail account or a MySpace page…who knows what digital assets you’ll have two years from now. You don’t want to revisit your estate planning attorney every time you join a new social network.
Another option is to keep a flash drive with all your pertinent information, along with instructions for handling each account. The drive would need to be stored in a safe place and updated frequently, and you would need to let a trusted family member or friend know of its location. Unless the person you select has easy access to your home, this may not be an ideal solution.
A third option is to get an account with an online digital asset repository such as LegacyLocker, which allows you to securely upload and maintain your usernames, passwords, and other information concerning your digital assets. In the event of your death or disability, access to this information is granted to a person (or people) designated by you, allowing for a smooth transition of your digital assets.
The worst thing you can do when it comes to planning your digital assets is nothing. Without a plan in place, many email providers have policies that provide for the deletion of all account contents after a specified period of inactivity. Leaving your digital assets in limbo can mean that your loved ones may lose access to them and might be forced to spend time and money jumping through hoops to get to your information.
It is especially important to have a clear plan for assets with real financial value, such as eBay, PayPal, iTunes, and Kindle accounts, not to mention online bank accounts. You’ll want to ensure the person you leave in charge of these is legally obligated to manage them as you have instructed. The trustee of your Trust is an obvious choice for this responsibility.
Technological advances continue to outpace the law, and these result in many gray areas when it comes to digital assets – especially in the context of estate planning. Now more than ever, it is essential that you work closely with an estate planning attorney who has knowledge of digital assets to ensure that your estate plan is up-to-date so that all of your assets are protected.
By: The American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys