As more and more of our lives and business takes place online, an important part of estate planning involves figuring out what should happen with everything you have that exists only online–your “digital assets.” From online bank and brokerage accounts to social media accounts to digital books and music to online gaming accounts, most of us have something online–and many of us probably have quite a bit online.
Some states have passed laws concerning digital assets (or, in a few states, just e-mail), and a number of others have proposed legislation at various times. The Uniform Law Commission, an organization that works to develop laws that can be enacted in various states, has also worked on creating uniform legislation for how to handle these sorts of assets.
In the meantime, there are still actions you can take to plan for this type of property. Online property is still property, and you can plan for it just like the rest of your property.
Let’s take an inventory
A good place to start is to actually figure out what you have. Some things will probably be obvious to you immediately, like the online banking you access a couple of times a week or the social media account you log into every day or so. When you put together an inventory, I recommend simply keeping track of everything online that requires a password for you to access. As you do this, if you have certain websites or other systems that remember who you are (so you don’t need to enter a password each time), make sure you don’t forget to list those. A month or two would probably be enough to find most everything you use.
Also, don’t forget that not all digital assets are accessed through a computer. You may be accessing digital assets through smartphones, tablets, and video game consoles, for instance. As you build your inventory, make sure to include assets you access through all your technology.
Keeping your inventory safe
Once you know what your assets are, you can put together a list for your personal representative to access. Like your will, it should be kept in a safe place. Because your accounts can be accessed with those passwords, it’s very important that you limit access to the list; putting the list on a sheet of paper next to your computer is not a good idea. At a minimum, the list should include what the asset is, how to access it, your user ID, and your password. You will probably change your password from time to time (Microsoft recommends every 30 days), so don’t forget to update that document when you change a password. Likewise, if you add an account after you create the document, you’ll want to make sure you add the new information to this list.
The list, of course, isn’t much good if no one knows where it is. You should let the person you want to handle these accounts for you know where the list is. Additionally, give some thought to who should be able to access your accounts if you can’t. While most systems aren’t too difficult to use, you might not want to have someone trying to access your accounts if they’re not all that comfortable with computers, smartphones, or tablets.
Deciding what you want to do with your assets
Like any other type of property, you will want to decide what you want to happen to the property at death. For most of the property, this is pretty simple; you would make plans for it just like your other personal property or real estate.
Some things really can’t be passed on, but you might have wishes for how you want an account handled. For instance, if you have a Facebook account, would you like your profile memorialized, or just removed? On the other hand, some accounts may not have an option; Twitter, for instance, appears to only allow for the deactivation of a deceased user’s account. Other items, like online media or game currency, may not be transferable.
It’s not that digital assets play by some different set of rules compared to the rest of the property in your estate, they don’t. What makes them worth extra attention is that digital assets are intangible, difficult to find, and difficult to access. By keeping a good inventory with up-to-date information, you can make these assets easy for your personal representative to find, manage, and distribute.
Photo credit: Flickr user Uwe Hermann, https://www.flickr.com/photos/uwehermann/5434816708/, licensed under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
Related articles across the web