A modern estate doesn’t contain only physical items and money. Digital assets are becoming an increasingly important part of a person’s estate. For example, have you ever thought about what will happen to your social media accounts after death? Failing to include digital assets in your estate planning can result in tricky legal situations for grieving relatives, who can be left without access to their loved one’s online accounts.
What Are Digital Assets?
Do you have a Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social media account? Are you in the process of eliminating paper? Are you keeping not just your photos, but also your bank and brokerage account information digitally and storing activity in Dropbox or iCloud? And does anyone besides yourself have the login information and passwords to your computer, phone, credit card, and social media accounts?
It’s hard enough to keep up with your online presence while you're alive. Just imagine how it will be for your executor.
Digital assets are files and data that are kept online — either on a web page or in cloud-based storage. Some assets, such as blogs that attract advertising revenue, PayPal, iTunes, and loyalty reward program accounts, can have an economic value. Meanwhile, assets such as photos stored online have great sentimental value for friends and family.
What Happens to Digital Assets and Social Media Accounts After Death?
By default, many digital assets become inaccessible after a person dies. Accounts that require a password to log in can be impossible to access. Many sites delete accounts that are idle for an extended period of time, often resulting in photos and web-based memories being lost forever.
Death can render some physical assets useless.
When recent widow Peggy Bush tried to use her late husband’s iPad, she found that she couldn’t access his Apple account because she didn’t know the password. Even after seeing the death certificate, Apple refused to give the family access to the account. Instead, the company indicated Bush would need a court order.
Apple eventually agreed to work with the family. But this case shows how failing to include digital assets in estate planning can create problems for the family of the deceased.
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Why Plan for Digital Assets?
The main motivation for digital asset estate planning is to make things easier for the executors of the will. Today, most people have a number of different usernames and passwords for their online accounts. Keeping an inventory of these login credentials spares relatives from lengthy battles with the companies that control the accounts during their period of bereavement.
There are situations where individuals don't want their families to gain access to private email and social media accounts after their death. In this case, it’s important to make these wishes clear during the estate-planning process.
In a more tangible sense, incorporating digital assets into estate planning can also prevent financial losses.
Many financial accounts today are administered online. This can lead to unpaid bills and loss of income from online businesses if relatives can’t quickly gain access.
What Should You Include in Digital Asset Estate Planning Documents?
Make sure that your will provides your executor with the power to access, transfer, and dispose of your digital assets.
As wills become public information after death, make sure to not include any login or password information. Rather, consider having your will refer to an outside document that you can maintain and update. That way, you can edit the document every few years to account for your various changing logins and passwords.
The first step in digital asset estate planning is to create an inventory of assets. This should include any flash drives, software, online accounts, and online subscriptions you have.
It’s also important to identify a person — maybe a friend or family member — who will take control of digital assets after your death.
The person you designate should be an individual with the necessary technological skills to log into online accounts, cancel subscriptions, and sort through large numbers of personal files and data with discretion.
Estate planning documents should also include instructions to let agents know how to manage digital assets. This may include deleting private emails, shutting down certain social media accounts, setting up a memorial page, or posting a goodbye post on a blog.
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Tools for Digital Asset Management
In lieu of a separate document detailing sensitive login information, there are a number of new services designed to manage your passwords. Not only do these tools make it easier to log in, but some also have built-in features to distribute your username and password to a trusted source in the event of your death. If you’re planning your estate now, or in the near future, consider the following software solutions:
- Keeper: This lets you designate up to five contacts to access your passwords and logins in the event of an emergency or death. It also allows you to designate a time period of inactivity before trusted friends and family can access your account. And that’s all for $2.50 a month. That’s less than your daily cup of joe.
- LastPass: The popular password management tool functions similarly to Keeper, where your emergency contact can request access to your account when you are at your “last pass.” You set the amount of time that will elapse — anywhere from two hours to a day. Then, if you don't reject their request, they’ll have access to your password vault. It costs $3 a month (plus tax).
- SecureSafe: Perhaps the most cohesive digital asset management system, SecureSafe lets you designate which files go to business partners, family members, or friends. This way, everything is distributed to the correct parties after you die. At four bucks a month, it’s about the same price as a beer.
The Bottom Line on Digital Assets and Estate Planning
So much of modern life takes place online. As such, it’s vital to decide what will happen to digital assets after death. Creating detailed instructions for dealing with digital assets in estate planning documents lets family members and agents know what to do during this difficult time. Make sure that your executor has the power to access, transfer, and dispose of your digital assets as you wish.
Taking precautionary steps now can ensure your digital footprint will be maintained in accordance with your last will and testament for years, maybe even decades, after your passing.
Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.