Creating a will or estate plan has always been about who will inherit your tangible assets — money, real estate, cars, personal possessions, etc. Now there is a new form of personal assets, your digital assets. When you die, they become your digital legacy. Determining who will get control of your digital assets is not a simple matter.
Many of us now rely heavily on technology to maintain our day-to-day affairs. Facebook, Pinterest, Ebay, PayPal, Etsy, online banking and email–these services are all part of our digital lives. Even the most casual computer user has a surprising amount of electronic information stored on their computer and on the web. Upon our death, this information remains in place and becomes our digital legacy. The trouble is, privacy laws and restrictions on terms of services for many of the most popular online services such as Google and Amazon prevent our loved ones from accessing our information once we are gone. In fact, we don’t even own our own the online information we store on services such as Facebook.
Fortunately, the world of managing digital estates is changing. Some states have already passed legislation addressing what happens to digital information but these laws are evolving making it difficult to adequately provide for your digital assets in your will.
Online providers are introducing services such as Google Inactive Account Manager and Facebook’s Deactivating, Deleting and Memorializing Accounts to help you manage electronic assets. Facebook now allows you to designate a legacy contact to manage your page upon your passing. You may give your legacy contact permission to download an archive of your photos and other profile information. You also have the option to have your page permanently deleted or placed in “memorialzed” status. Legacy contacts do not have access to private messages or other information that is available only when you log in.
Also, there are a number of fee-based online services that can help you manage your online information and designate how it should be handled when you are gone. While the products available to help us manage what happens to our online information will continue to improve, the best way to ensure that your accounts and information are according to your wishes is to create and leave behind a Digital Legacy Plan.
We have created a handy Digital Legacy Guide and a Digital Legacy Checklist/Record Book to help you manage your digital assets. Click the button below to get these complementary materials.
• Inform online associates of your death.
• Transfer money or credits to your heirs.
• Archive electronic files such as photos and videos.
• Close accounts.
• Cancel subscriptions.
• Turn social media accounts into memorial sites.
• Transfer or turn off blogs and websites.
Be sure to consult the terms of service for your accounts to determine what actions can be legally taken.
Steps To Creating A Plan for your Digital Assets
STEP 1: Make a list
The first step in creating a good digital legacy plan is to create an inventory of your assets and how to access them. Be sure to include all your important online accounts. Many people find it helpful to prioritize your lists by importance. Among the list of accounts you should include are:
- Banking and other financial sites
- Email accounts
- Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Photo sharing sites such as Shutterfly and Picasa
- Online back up systems
- File sharing services such as Dropbox
- Financial sites such as PayPal and online banking accounts
- Shopping sites such as Ebay and Amazon
- Media sites such as Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu
- Frequent flier and travel sites
- Any other online sites to which you belong
STEP 2: Document how you want your online accounts handled
An example of the type of decision you might include in your list of instructions is whether you would like to have your Facebook account deactivated or kept on as a memorial to your life? For photo accounts would you like the photos to be forwarded to a loved one or should your account be deleted?
STEP 3: Decide who will handle your accounts
Deciding who will take care of your online affairs is an important part of your plan. To make sure your digital assets are handled the way you want them to be you should name someone to act as your digital executor. This should be someone you can trust. Keep the maturity of the person you choose in mind as well as their ability to handle sensitive information. Technical savvy is certainly and added plus.
Your digital executor will work together with the executor or your estate. This person will not have the same powers as your executor. Instead, he or she will be responsible for taking care of your digital assets. You should name this person in your will. If you already have a will and would like to add a digital executor you will need to either rewrite it or add a codicil.
STEP 4: Find a safe place for your information
Once your list is complete find a secure location to store your list. A good place would be a safety deposit box or safe. (For security purposes, consider storing your list of assets and your list of passwords in a separate locations.) Make sure your family or executor knows how to find your information.
STEP 5: Keep your list up-to-date
Since online accounts and passwords may frequently change, it is tempting to create a list and forget about it. It is important to visit your inventory and instructions from time to time in order to make sure the information is up to date when it is needed. Setting a yearly or bi-yearly review can be a good way to monitor your accounts.
Your Digital Assets: Legal Considerations
Despite the fact that many of us maintain a great deal of our information in electronic form, both the states and the federal government have been slow to adopt regulations to guide us in planning for our digital legacy. Most legal experts believe that it will be several years before national action is undertaken and only five states have passed legislation granting executors powers over digital assets. Laws passed in Connecticut and Rhode Island only cover email while legislation in Indiana, Idaho, and Oklahoma include social networking and blogging accounts. All of these laws are limited in scope and have not yet been tested in the courts.
Even though many states have not yet changed their laws to help people protect their digital assets, you should still include your digital estate in your end-of-life planning. This will ensure that your family knows how you would like your electronic information handled once you’re gone.