Long-Term Implications of Digital Assets

As we increase our online presence and digital assets with banking, shopping and sharing information, the personal, professional and financial aspects of our lives are leaving a digital thumbprint that needs to be considered when we address estate planning.

What happens to these accounts when we die? Can our beneficiaries access these accounts? Who'll close down our Facebook accounts? What will happen to all the personal and professional emails sent and received?

State legislatures have been grappling with issues of digital property since 2005. A Connecticut legislature passed a law concerning access to decedents' email accounts and, since then, other states have also passed laws outlining authorization for executors to take control of social networking and web-based accounts.

While the law catches up with technology, you can make things easier now for your heirs. Below are some practical steps to better manage digital assets:

1. Inventory your digital assets. Gather and collect as much information as you can, making lists of user names and passwords, hardware, software places and structure where info is kept, online presences — websites, blogs, Facebook, and online accounts for shopping, email and professional and recreational associations — as well as work data.

2. Identify who'll be responsible for digital assets. The person you name as executor of your will may be able to manage online accounts and sites, but maybe you'll want someone else who is more technologically savvy to protect your family's digital privacy.

3. Provide access to your personal representative. While we've been cautioned not to write down passwords and PINs, when you're preparing for the care of your digital assets, you need to do just that — create a list of everything in your inventory and share it with your designated representative. Print it out and store it in a fireproof box or with your estate planning lawyer.

4. Provide specific instructions for handling digital assets. How would you like your personal friends and professional acquaintances notified of your death? How would you like your accounts closed? Identify particular documents, photographs and digital images you don't want deleted. Designate any information you want donated to family members or a particular charity or university.

5. Give appropriate authority. Make sure the individual you've chosen to be responsible for your digital assets is named in your will and has the authority to deal with your online accounts.

Many online services help with the safe storage of your digital asset planning. You can create a spreadsheet for your digital assets, including user names, passwords and account information. You can upload that file to Dropbox, or use Legacy Locker, Asset Lock, Cirrus Legacy or Secure Safe.

Let your estate planning attorney in on all this. Discuss plans with your loved ones and carry out the plan with the guidance of your lawyer. Your lifetime digital presence has grown so much over the past decade and the issues involved in handling your digital assets have developed as well. Planning ahead to manage your digital assets should make things easier for your survivors, ensuring your wishes are followed.


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