If you have ever consulted with a professional estate planner, then you may know what it takes to set up a good estate plan. From ensuring that the wording on your will is precise, to choosing a good successor trustee/executor, to drafting and creating a trust applicable to your estate needs and wants – it takes many steps to ensure that your assets and properties are secure and ready to be distributed after you pass away.
But have you taken the time to consider your digital assets? If you have spent anywhere near the amount of time most people spend online, then chances are that you have your own email and social network accounts, cloud storage service accounts, and you may possibly even have accounts to services that are integral for running your business and maintaining its online functionality, from webhosting to Github.
Depending on what kind of data it is, and where it is stored, there is a surprising amount of information left online when a person passes away. Some elect to simply let their accounts live on forever, until the servers related to a given service stop supporting said service. Others, however, take steps to secure their information, lest it may be stolen, misappropriated, misused for identity theft, or otherwise manipulated.
If you have any online presence, consider speaking to your estate planning professional about accounting for your digital assets.
Digital Assets and Your Estate Plan
First, it is important to understand what qualifies as a digital asset. Digital assets are typically anything you own that is digital, including hardware for computing (anything from a flash drive to a personal computer, including external hard drives, backup drives, tablets, digital cameras, smartphones and music players), any private information that you possess control over, any online property you possess (including website domains and such), intellectual property that you have copyrighted and uploaded online, and the contents of certain accounts, including pictures on social networks, communications on email accounts, and conversations on instant messaging services.
There are a few other examples of digital property, but for the most part it suffices to say that anything you strictly own online, meaning anything you may have produced and possess rights over, as well as hardware or digital real estate that you own or control, falls under digital property.
Some digital property has monetary value, which is why it is considered a digital asset. Hardware is an obvious one, but if you own a domain name with ad revenue, then that is also a digital asset. Financial accounts online, such as a PayPal or Payoneer account, or Cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, must also be accounted for.
The issue is simply that when you pass away, there is no automatic process to help unravel all your digital assets and deal with them. If you die without leaving any hint as to what should be done with your Facebook page, or your email address, then your family may run into arguments as to how best to honor your digital footprint. This becomes even more problematic if you do not leave behind any form of password storage, thus making access to your accounts difficult if not legally impossible.
Account Security, Privacy, and Death
For one, passing control over to an executor or trustee is not as easy as you might think. Federal law currently considers accessing a deceased person’s account with their login credentials a form of fraud, and many tech companies and software developers have very stringent legal measures in place to prevent people from accessing your account even once you have passed away.
Do not presume that your family will find a way into your accounts and devices without you deliberately and legally passing control over to them. By arranging for a digital estate plan with a professional, you can make sure that your login details are secured and kept ready for the day you pass on.
Consider a Digital Memorial
Some online platforms like Facebook have specific policies and suggestions in place for families looking to deal with their loved ones’ online accounts. Facebook allows you to set up a memorial page for a deceased family member or friend, provided enough information is given to prove that they have passed.
A memorialized account may also act as a public wall of sorts for friends and family to share memories. Facebook also encourages the creation of Pages as mementos. Alternatively, Facebook deletes a person’s account upon request, if you do not wish for your family to keep your account active. Microsoft, Google, and various other companies have different requirements for family members to facilitate the deactivation of an online account. Many of these are very tedious and arranging access and clarifying your wishes through an estate plan can save your family a lot of trouble at a troubling time.
Hire a Legal Professional
While dealing with a deceased loved ones’ online identity after their passing is still relatively uncharted territory in many cases, there is more than enough precedent for making it a major point in your own estate planning. The world we live in is becoming increasingly connected to the Internet, and our lives are often inexplicably linked with our actions, words, and appearances online.
Aside from playing a major role in how we portray ourselves personally and privately among friends and family, the Internet is where a large portion of the world’s businesses find themselves looking and competing for clients and sales. Business is being conducted online, either entirely or partially, from using instant messaging and screensharing technology to schedule and conduct meetings, to browsing for, finding, and buying a product or service without every seeing or speaking to another human being.
Our business interests, personal interests, and data that represents financial value or something of other value is increasingly going digital. We are not just keeping safety deposit keys and family heirlooms safe – we are storing passwords in protected containers, setting up encrypted emails, and making secure backups of important data.
But most importantly, this is your data. Your accounts, your setups, and your passwords. Only you should ideally know what needs to be considered and what can safely go on existing without you and navigating that without professional help can be a nightmare. Rather than tackling the issue alone with limited knowledge, make it a priority to discuss your digital assets with an estate planning professional, and get an opinion on what you should do specifically based on what sort of assets and data you are dealing with.
It only makes sense to secure your data for the inevitable, and ensure that when you do pass away, every piece of sensitive information regarding yourself and your business will be swiftly and properly dealt with.