Estate Planning and Digital Assets

by Emily Guy Birken · 5 comments

Sometimes the law can lag behind technological advances. This is particularly clear when it comes to estate law. While most Americans now keep much of their life online — from bills to correspondence to social networking to blogs — very few of us think to make provisions for our digital lives when making a will.

If you’re thinking it does not really matter that your heirs won’t be able to access your Farmville account after your death, you should remember that digital assets can have both sentimental and economic value. Imagine losing all the shared photos and blogs of a loved one — or losing the advertising revenue from a blogger or the ability access to online-only bank accounts. Making sure that your family can access your digital assets is something that will help protect and comfort them during a difficult time.

Here is what you need to know about protecting your digital assets in the event of your death:

1. Take stock of your digital life. It’s important to have an inventory for yourself and your estate of all of your digital assets. This includes any bills you pay online, any domains you have registered under your name, any online banking you do, as well as any social networking you take part in. An easy way to decide what is important is to think about what you would lose if your computer were stolen or if all your passwords were deleted. Those items that you could not live without are the ones you want to make sure are protected in your estate.

2. Appoint a digital executor. Just as with tangible assets, an executor can oversee and manage digital assets after you pass away. It will be the executor’s duty to work on your behalf to take over or delete your digital assets after your death. This will allow your family to continue to pay bills or access important information that is only stored digitally.

3. Know that not everything can be saved. It is important to note that many email platforms will delete a user’s data and account upon notification of a death. While a few states (Connecticut, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, and Idaho) have established laws allowing a personal representative or executor to access the email account of a deceased individual, the law is generally behind the times. Nearly all internet accounts require an acceptance of terms of use — which includes language that specifies that the account is to only be used by the account holder. This means that the service provider can delete accounts and reclaim usernames if the account holder dies.

4. Provide access (but protect your passwords). One of the hardest aspects of this kind of estate planning is knowing how to provide password and PIN access to your executor. We have all had it drilled into our heads that we should never write down a password, but asking your executor to handle your digital assets without providing your passwords will make it impossible for him or her to carry out your wishes.

You will want to find a secure place to store your password information where your executor will be able to access it. One option is to enter all of your passwords on a password-storage website which is only accessed through a master password. If you keep the information about the master password separate from the information about which website you are using, that should help to protect you from hacking. Another benefit to these sites is that they will also remain current if you regularly change your passwords.

The Bottom Line

Until our laws have caught up with our technology, it is up to us to make sure that our digital lives are secure, protected, and accessible if we ever become incapacitated or die.

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  • Good post – never thought of this. I need to make a list and see if indeed I own anything valuable online. 🙂

  • Marbella says:

    This sounds like you have a lot of hidden money hidden in various accounts that your family does not know about. If you make an annual declaration of your assets and liabilities to the state, all the information is there.

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  • This is actually quite interesting, and a great example of how real life might be outpacing the effectiveness of current laws. Much of our lives are impacted through digital channels, and even other than online banking/passwords, etc – there are real assets that have tangible and intangible value. If not accessible or mishandled, value could erode or evaporate. Good post!

  • This is something I hadn’t considered but is very valuable today. When I finally get around to writing a will I will definitely be accounting for this in one way or another.

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