Have you ever thought about how many websites you log into in a given week? Have you paid your bills? Checked your medical records? Posted vacation pictures on Shutterfly? Purchased songs on iTunes or posted a video on YouTube? Or what have you logged into just today? Work email, personal email, Facebook, Twitter, Linked in?
In the electronic age, many more people are replacing paper and pen tasks with online access. Many more people are using email and social media websites as daily ways to contact people but most do not consider what will happen to these accounts when they are incapacitated or deceased. Entrustet, a digital estate planning website, predicts 408,000 Facebook users will die in 2011.
In establishing an estate plan, an attorney asks clients to complete their asset booklet. But what is an asset? People generally list houses, rental property, financial accounts and business ventures but nobodylists digital assets. Can they be inherited? Who should manage them? There have been developing conversations regarding whether digital assets can be treated as “brick-and-mortar” assets and be managed by personal representatives upon incapacity and death.
There are four types of digital assets, although there is some overlap.
- Personal assets – includes information generally found on a computer, smartphone or
uploaded to a website. The hard drive of computer likely holds photos,
important documents, emails, playlists, banking and medical records.
- Social Media Assets – includes websites like Facebook, Twitter, email and dating
websites. Most of these accounts include personal information, photos and even
- Financial Assets – most financial companies offer online banking and investing. You
can go online to check account balances, transfer stock or pay bills. Other
online financial assets include Amazon, PayPal and maybe online gaming
- Business Accounts – many people buy and sell goods on eBay, craigslist or Amazon.
More established businesses may collect customer contact information,
physicians may provide patient information, or shared documents may be
available on an FTP site or virtual drop box. Blogs and domains maybe may also
be valuable digital assets.
All of the digital assets mentioned require a unique username and password to access. But who can access? Some companies have their own policies listed in the fine print which you agreed to when signing up for the account. Some terminate on notification of death while some may not have a policy. Facebook allows a deceased account to be “memorialized” to bring comfort to the decedent’s virtual family while Yahoo! states that accounts cannot be transferred and right to a Yahoo! ID or contents of an accountterminate at death.
As this is a new concept, many states have not enacted legislation to handle such assets. So how do you plan when digital assets are not generally governed by wills or trusts? How does your trusted personal representative access and manage your digital assets?
Some steps you should take include: Inventory your digital assets and provide logins and passwords. As tedious as it may be, it is necessary to update this list whenever new accounts are created or deleted orwhen passwords change. In order to protect your privacy, this information should be saved on a CD, DVD-R or USB flash drive and be password protected or in hard copy. Wherever this is stored, please make sure a trusted person knows if its existence and if password protected, make sure they know the passwordtoo.
There are also online databases which assist in planning for how your online life should be handled at such time when you are unable to manage them. Entrustet, http://www.entrustet.com/, and Legacy Locker, http://legacylocker.com/, offer customers the ability to list digital assets, store online passwords,delete online accounts and provides access to designated beneficiaries in the event of loss, death or disability. These companies state their services are as secure as safety deposit boxes and require security questions be answered by beneficiaries before information is released.
While there may not be a perfect solution to managing the ever changing online life most of us have created, it is very important to consider the management of our virtual assets as we become more and more digital. Relying on online access is convenient while we are capable of using the services but can be frustrating and problematic for our successors. If you would like to discuss planning for your digital assets, please contact us.