Over 85 percent of Americans use the Internet regularly. With our digital world becoming more and more integrated into the real world, there is a growing and genuine need to rethink the way we estate planning attorneys craft our trusts and other instruments. in particular, the increased value we place on digital assets such photos, emails, and other media needs more consideration on these items are conveyed to your heirs.
Why Perform Digital Asset Management?
Your online accounts, especially your social media accounts, are a significant part of your life, but what happens when you are incapacitated or reach your demise? Do you want chosen friends and family to access your accounts? If you choose to do nothing they may likely be denied access to your online existence. For example, a few years ago, Yahoo! closed the account of a 20-year-old United States Marine by the name Justin Ellsworth after he was killed by a roadside bomb in the Middle East. His family had to get a court order to access his e-mail, because the company would not divulge personal information to anyone except the account holder under any circumstances. Not all organizations have a similar policy, but many do.
The issue is not just limited to e-mails. Other accounts, such as Facebook and Twitter, may have little or no monetary value but considerable sentimental value for family and friends. A missing username or password is far more than an inconvenience to a grieving family. Also determining which family member has rights to digital photo libraries, or other important media are becoming increasingly important.
Digital Asset Management in Estate Planning
Surprisingly not a lot of attorneys are giving this a whole lot of thought but I feel differently. I think digital assets are very important and I encourage all of my clients to consider incorporating these items into estate planning documents. Here are a couple of things you should do/consider when you’re determined to incorporate your digital assets into your estate plan:
- Inventory: This first step may be the most time-consuming part of the plan, because many people have dozens or even hundreds of online accounts. Make sure you create a list of all your usernames and passwords of all of the sites that are important to you. These can include photo sharing sites like Flickr and Picassa as well as social media sites like Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest.
- Distribution: The person you trust with your online life needs to be someone who is both comfortable using the Internet and imminently trustworthy. As with any designation, it’s normally a good idea to name both a primary person and at least one or two alternates. This person may or may not be the same as your executor or trustee.
- Publication: Once you’ve assembled all this information, it should not be included in the documents themselves since with some estate planning documents, such as a will, there is a possibility that the information can become public. Instead, direct your heirs and/or executors to a safe-deposit box or other secure place where they can obtain a copy of the information. There are many digital asset “safeboxes” that provide access via the cloud.
If your estate documents do not already make provisions for your digital assets, then this is a conversation worth having with me. Feel free to call me or schedule an appointment to discuss this and any other estate planning questions you may have.