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Estate Planning in the Online World


Estate Planning

You are likely reading this via your e-mail or online via the World Wide Web. You may also access your bank accounts and credit cards as well as Amazon, PayPal, etc.  via the internet. Many of you post to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Pinterest to name a few. If you have digital pictures or you back up your smartphones, this is all done online. You may even store important data files online at sites such as Carbonite. For many of us, more and more of our lives take place in an online, digital world. Our digital “footprint” grows larger all the time whether we realize it or not. But what happens to all of this when you are gone? How do your heirs access your important files and accounts? What kind of value does this have?  Should this all be preserved or disposed? In today’s world, your online legacy can really become a tangled web.

McAfee, the well-known software company that produces virus protection software, released a digital survey last year that showed the following:

  • Nearly 90% of consumers own multiple digital devices, with 62% owning 3 or more and 20% owning 5 or more.
  • More than half of consumers (51%) spend 15 hours or more on their digital devices for personal use each week. More than 2 hours a day!
  • On average, we have over $35,000 worth of assets stored on our devices consisting of video games, books, music, photos, apps, etc.

Source: McAfee Digital Asset survey 2013

Traditional estate planning very rarely gets into this topic and most people don’t consider the immortality of our digital footprint. However, with the online world becoming such a big part of many or our lives, we need to plan for this along with everything else in our estate. Experts say it is now essential to include provisions in your wills and powers of attorney outlining how to access and dispose, of digital assets such as photos, e-mails and online presence on sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. If you conduct virtually all of your transactions online, it might be hard for your executor to find all of your accounts, assets and outstanding bills.

Survivors need to be able to access online accounts and e-mail and will need to know which sites you frequented, along with the user names and passwords to gain access to these sites. This information is being referred to as a “Cyber Will”.  A “Cyber Will” identifies an online executor whose responsibility it is to access and shut down a decedent’s social media, e-mail, blogs, online accounts, etc. This “Cyber Will” is not really a legal instrument but provides the instructions, user names and passwords to family and friends for dealing with your online accounts.  The goal is to ensure that the deceased’s online assets can be accessed and that the content is handled in accordance with the wishes of that person.

Documenting how to access accounts is extremely important. Without a username or password, it can take months or longer to access accounts and many large firms are reluctant to grant access to anyone other than the original user.  (Password management sounds like a great idea for a future article) This information can be written and shared with the attorney, executor or other family members, or kept in a safe deposit box. One place you DO NOT want to put it, though, is in your will. Since a will is a public document, you DO NOT want this information included where everyone can see it.

Digital assets such as music and books that reside online are usually not allowed to be passed from the deceased to their heirs. Most commercial sites such as Apple, Amazon, Yahoo, etc. only allow the license to these items to exist with the person who bought it. Since everyone reads all the lines in those “Terms of Service Agreements” before clicking “Accept” we all know this already. This purchased content from iTunes and places like Amazon’s Kindle is fiercely protected by these companies as individuals buying media online are not granted actual ownership but are leasing the materials for the rest of their lives.

There are some companies that have sprung up in the last few years to take advantage of the demand for online estate planning. They are considered digital estate management services and provide ways for storing passwords and providing instructions to loved ones on how to deal with their online assets. They may also offer services that destroy the online content that the person would like to have destroyed after their death. Legacy Locker (now known as PasswordBox) and SecureSafe are two of the more recognizable companies providing these services. These companies are also password management providers which provide ways to manage your growing password collection.

There are also smartphone apps such as “Deathswitch”, “My Last Wish”, and “If I Die” that allow the departed to let loved ones know about their final wishes and to send a message to loved ones after they are gone. These apps aren’t so much used for conveying user names and passwords, but more for leaving messages and instructions for survivors.

Getting back to Facebook accounts, nearly 400,000 Facebook users die each year, so Facebook now provides options for loved ones to either close accounts or memorialize the departed. Memorialized accounts can only be accessed by confirmed friends and family and they can leave messages in remembrance. The accounts can be left open indefinitely.

As you are preparing your estate plan or the next time you are updating your estate documents, it would be a good idea to discuss the concept of a “Cyber will” with your attorney. You should consider including provisions in your wills, powers of attorney, and revocable living trusts that authorize your executors access to your online accounts. Or you may want to consider one of the services such as PasswordBox or SecureSafe to help with this.  It can save your heirs many hours of toil and trouble and help ensure that your valuable digital assets aren’t just locked in cyberspace forever without access by your loved ones.