Digital Estate Planning

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By: Denise Martin

Preparing for what happens to your digital assets and online identity after death is becoming increasingly important as a result of the widespread use of email, social media platforms, online banking and payment accounts, etc.  The average person now has a sizeable digital footprint, including personal communications through email platforms, social media profiles, confidential financial accounts through online banking systems and sites like Amazon and Paypal, and libraries containing photos, music, e-books, games, and movies, etc.  Managing these assets during periods of incapacity or following death has not been the subject of traditional estate planning.  Taking extra steps to manage these resources is now an important element of a careful estate plan.

The first step in establishing a plan for one’s digital assets is to perform a complete inventory to determine what digital content exists and where such assets are located.  Second, the individual should determine what he or she wants to happen to their digital assets after death.  One may need to decide whether he or she wants to share digital photos or videos with family members and friends, clean out Dropbox and Google Docs accounts, or close down a personal blog.  One may want to provide access to email accounts to one’s personal representative to be used to locate important contacts or key information.  The third step in the process requires documenting how to access digital accounts.  The account information may be written down on paper and shared with an attorney, the personal representative of the estate, or a trusted family member or friend, or otherwise stored in a manner that can be accessed after death.  There are also digital estate management companies which provide services to manage the “death” of digital content and convey critical information to survivors, such as content-related instructions and passwords for online accounts; popular companies providing these services include Legacy Locker and DataInherit.

It should be noted that most online companies have their own policies about what happens to a digital account after a user’s death.  Unlike books or movies purchased at a store, individuals who buy media content online may not acquire ownership with the ability to transfer the asset; Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iTunes stores have terms of service provisions that state that such content is merely being leased to the individual for the rest of their life.  Google recently developed a tool called the “Inactive Account Manager” that allows users to plan what will happen to their private data after they die.  Facebook provides different options for survivors to close accounts or to use them to memorialize the loved one.

McChesney & Dale, P.C., has been assisting individuals with estate planning for many decades, while fluidly adapting to changes in the law and technology.  If you would like to create or update an estate plan or have questions about digital estate planning, please contact us.

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