Estate planning is the process of arranging for the disposition of assets upon death. The most common estate planning documents are Wills and Trusts. These documents name the beneficiaries who are entitled to receive the assets and the executors or trustees whose responsibilities include gathering those assets and distributing them to the beneficiaries. Bank accounts, homes, cars, and retirement accounts are easy for the executors and trustees to identify and transfer. In the digital era, many people have digital assets and online accounts that make it difficult for the survivors to find and access. Estate planning that involves digital assets and online accounts takes careful planning in order to ensure that those accounts are handled properly after your death.
Digital assets include content from computers and mobile phones such as emails, social media accounts, online businesses, multimedia content, photos, writings, blogs, and downloads. Many of these assets are stored on websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Pinterest, LinkedIN, Snapfish and Instagram. This “digital presence” should be carefully considered to determine how to manage it, preserve it and when necessary, transfer it upon your death.
Managing a deceased individual’s digital assets and online accounts by an executor or trustee can be difficult because there are privacy laws, criminal laws, data encryption and passwords that can interfere with the ability to access the account. In addition, companies such as Facebook have “Terms of Service” and other policies that can restrict access and management of the account after your death. For example, Facebook offers a “Memorialized Request”. When Facebook is presented with proof of death and other information about a deceased individual, Facebook will allow the decedent’s Facebook page to be turned into a memorial that friends and relatives can access. Other companies may not offer this feature. In certain instances, Google allows authorized representatives to access accounts. Executors and Trustees must deal with each of these companies separately and independently which can be an insurmountable task if you do not take the time to plan properly.
As with all estate planning, you should always retain an attorney to help you. An attorney can help draft the important documents to specify your wishes and give direction on how those wishes are to be carried out. Some important estate planning steps and considerations for digital assets and online accounts include:
- Identify the assets and organize them. You should create an inventory of the assets including the names, websites, locations (phone, laptop) usernames and passwords.
- Content in your Will and Trust. In your estate planning documents, your estate planning attorney should include provisions for management and distribution of the accounts and assets.
- Archive the content. Back up the computer and other devices to prevent a complete data loss.
- Provide consent and specific powers to access and manage the accounts to your executors and trustees in your Will or Trust.
- Authorize executors and trustees to bypass, reset, use or recover passwords.
Like any asset, proper identification of the assets and specific direction for how the assets are to be managed and/or distributed upon your death helps survivors administer your estate with ease. Proper planning for digital assets and online accounts is essential to ensure that your “digital presence” is preserved and your assets pass on to your loved ones.