Today there is a new kind of asset class requiring attention when creating or reviewing your estate plan: digital assets. A recent article, titled “Everything you need to know about digital estate planning” from the Daily Herald, describes what needs to happen to protect your digital life.
Let’s start by defining a digital asset. These include social media, email accounts, online subscription services, personal images (photos and videos) stored online, blogs, online businesses, cryptocurrency, websites, web domains, gaming accounts, and gambling websites, to name a few.
Signing up for any of these accounts involves lengthy terms of service agreement (TOSA), which we all scroll past without reading and click “Agree.” What we don’t realize is our agreement is a legally-binding contract with the platform or service provider agreeing to whatever terms they have created. Many of these TOSAs include provisions stating when the original owner passes, the company may terminate their account, regardless of the value of the digital property or the wishes of the owner.
Most states have adopted legislation of some kind to address digital assets after the person has passed. Generally speaking, they grant the traditional executor or representative access to digital information. However, here’s the problem: the tech companies stand by their contracts. Protection of the original owner’s privacy is often cited as the reason contents cannot be shared with another person. Even if the executor knows the username and password, they may find the account and its content deleted. The executor may only find a small portion of the online information or be accused of committing fraud for logging on using the decedent’s username and password.
Big tech companies take the position the data and accounts were owned by one person. As a result, they have a responsibility to protect the person’s privacy. Therefore, they are not legally permitted to share data or content. The headlines of heirs trying to get family photos or police departments attempting to get evidence represent a tiny portion of the many people trying to access their loved one’s digital property. There are also millions lost in cryptocurrency from actual owners who forget their keys, or owners who never shared information with their heirs about accessing crypto wallets.
What can you do to protect your digital assets?
Appoint a digital executor in your will and provide them with the necessary materials to access your digital assets.
Create a digital asset inventory. There are online programs for this purpose, or you can use paper and pen. If you create a spreadsheet on a computer, you should encrypt it. Otherwise, you can expect it to be hacked and stolen. The only question is when, not if!
Keep the inventory up to date every time you change a password or username.
Decide what you want to happen to each digital asset after your death. Do you want your Facebook account changed to a “memorialized” account for a period of time? Or would you prefer it to be shut down, immediately?
Certain digital platforms have a process for assigning an executor—not many, but some. Find out what the policies are for all of your accounts.
Don’t share any digital asset information in your last will. The last will and testament becomes a public document when it is filed in the court. Anyone can gain access to it. Protect it the same way you would protect any major traditional asset.
Talk with your estate planning attorney about your state’s digital assets laws. This is still a relatively new asset class, but one that deserves the same level of protection as other assets.
Reference: Daily Herald (Nov. 10, 2021) “Everything you need to know about digital estate planning”