Recently I was inspired by this article: “The Man Who Coined Digital Executor.” I wanted to share a few thoughts on what your digital assets are and why you need to protect them.
An unforeseen consequence of the digital age is what happens to your Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites when you pass away? Do they continue to linger? Do friends and followers continue to post on your site? Is your data at risk?
Disposal of your assets when you pass away by Will or trust or any number of other legal instruments is common. In fact, should you die without a Will, you are considered intestate and the state determines who will inherit your assets. An executor to oversee your estate and its disposition may be appointed by you in your Will or by the court if no Will is left. But your social media and other digital data may be another matter.
The person credited with the term “digital executor” is Derek Miller who in 2011 succumbed to colorectal cancer. Miller was a blogger and well-known and respected in tech circles for his post, Penmachine, and wrote in his final months about digital death and digital legacy. The term “digital executor” was coined in 2008 by him after he learned of his diagnosis. While fighting cancer and facing his own demise, Miller was concerned about what happens to a person’s online community after death and if they wished to leave some kind of legacy or contribution.
Miller and others were also concerned about how to express intent regarding your digital assets to your executor. Traditionally, your Will expresses your intent regarding disposition of your assets and it must be followed unless it expresses legally invalid conditions or is otherwise invalid.
In the digital world, there is virtual reality. Virtual farms, buildings, virtual identities, email and email accounts, e-commerce, virtual currency and a presence on online gaming sites may continue to exist despite the nonexistence of our corporeal selves, which may beg the question, “Is there virtual life after death?”
As a result of Derek Miller’s work and that of others, awareness of our legacy in the digital world is expanding. Our posts, emails, likes, dislikes, comments, experiences, loves, successes and failures live on along with other intimate details of our lives. Anyone who is appointed an estate executor should take the time to review the online presence left by the deceased. For those who are active in social media sites, advising your executor in your Will about what to do with your Facebook page, gaming and e-commerce sites other accounts is becoming an integral concern when estate planning is considered. For example, you may want to have your account on such sites as Ashley Madison, designed for extra-marital affairs, to be taken down.
In fact, there is now digital estate planning that can offer ways for an executor or someone else to close down, protect or preserve certain accounts or identities. Also, anyone can record their feelings or memoirs and preserve them digitally for families and friends as a way of bringing back the oral tradition of passing down family histories, practices and legacies.
Digital Death Day
There is now a digital death day, or days, the first one having been in 2010. It is a day when professionals in various disciplines such as psychology, grief counseling meet with funeral directors, tech engineers, philosophers and estate planning lawyers to discuss what to do with virtual assets and identities as well as how to memorialize the deceased.
If you have a digital identity and other digital footprints, you should include these facets of your life in your Will, which should include steps on shutting down what you need to and to dispose of your virtual assets to perhaps virtual heirs. If you have any questions or need help, contact Christopher B. Johnson – a Pasadena-based estate planning attorney.