Why your estate plan should include digital assets


What comes to your mind when you think about estate planning? You can imagine a house and a will describing to whom it will be passed. While physical ownership is definitely one of them, you will also need a plan for your digital assets.

If you don’t know what a digital estate plan is, you’re not alone – they’re becoming more and more common. But as more and more technology infiltrates our lives, you will definitely need it. “Today, a large part of our life is spent online, and a large part of your life, whether it is your financial life or your personal life, is managed in these online accounts,” says Abby Schneiderman, co-founder and co-CEO of Everplans, a digital end-of-life planning app. “And if your family doesn’t know what to do with these things, it just becomes a huge mess.”

Here’s an overview of what a digital estate plan is and how you can go about creating one.

What are digital assets?

Digital assets include everything from your purchased movies or books that are stored on a Kindle or your iTunes account, to login credentials for your dating profiles and even cryptocurrency. “You have [digital] photographs, you have videos, ”says Schneiderman.

Then there are all of your online accounts to consider, like email accounts, social media accounts, online shopping accounts, and those that can have multiple uses, like Amazon, for example. Even gaming accounts should be included in your digital succession plan, she says.

If you have online accounts that you have stopped using, but which contain personal information such as credit card numbers, “It is best to delete the account and all associated data now,” says Catherine Ullman, Senior Forensic Information Security Analyst at the University of Buffalo. .

Truth be told, many of them are easy to forget. “Domain names – I have probably 150 domain names. My husband probably has no idea that I own them, ”Schneiderman, also one of the authors of In case you get hit by a bus: how to organize your life now for when you’re not around later, adds.

Be aware that digital assets work differently than many physical assets. You can have a license to use your email account, for example, but that doesn’t mean you can necessarily forward the account to someone else to send emails after you die.

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Why should you have a plan for your digital wealth?

Creating an estate plan can be a show of love and care for the family and friends we leave behind, while not having one can be confusing.

This is not far from what happened when a photographer friend of Ullman died suddenly years ago. “[He] had no willpower because he was young, he was in his forties, ”she said. As a result, “neither his girlfriend nor his friends had any right to anything in the field, including his digital assets.” Her friend’s brother – with whom she says she had a “tenuous” relationship – ended up inheriting everything. Ullman was already aware of the importance of estate planning, but she says the experience “brought her closer to home.”

As an expert in information security, Ullman is also keenly aware of what can go wrong online.

One of the main reasons for creating a digital estate plan is that you don’t want personal details ending up with a stranger or someone who, frankly, you hoped would never see it. This is true even after we die. And if we don’t plan how to take care of this personal information, there is no way of knowing where it will end up. “We’ve all done goofy things where we’ve taken pictures and maybe we don’t want the world to see them,” Ullman says.

Identity theft and fraud can also occur after your death. “Depending on your profession, you may also have digital assets that have substantial intellectual property and monetary value, which could also be stolen or misappropriated,” Ullman adds.

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How can you protect your digital assets?

First, make a list of all your digital assets, says Schneiderman. Or as many of them as you can think of right now. You can always add to the list, she says, and in fact, you should make a habit of reviewing her every year. Ideally, this list should exist in a password manager.

Then make a plan for each of these accounts. Note whether you want them to be continued, closed, or, if the platform allows, turned into a memorial account. Your will may become public at some point after your death, so be careful not to include passwords or account details in it. Instead, share that information with a lawyer or trusted friend, Ullman says.

Some platforms, like Facebook and Google, have a system where you can set a plan for what you want to happen to your account when you die. “These bigger players have largely built in some sort of … internal system for you to either appoint someone to take over your account or someone who has the power to deal with your account, maybe in a way. that you choose, ”says Patrick Hicks. , Legal Manager at Trust and Will, a digital estate planning platform.

You can decide to turn your Facebook profile into a memorial that a certain family member will control, for example. And you can make that designation right in your Facebook settings by choosing what they call a “legacy contact.” “It’s simple, it’s clear. The downside is that it’s active by active,” says Hicks. “Whatever digital assets you own, you will need to do it with each asset. “

It gets more complicated with assets like cryptocurrency, where many owners don’t have a paper trail of their assets. This could make it difficult for your friends and family to access your crypto. “If you don’t include some documents, some records just to say, ‘I own these assets in this place, they can just evaporate to death,’ Hicks explains. ‘So you need to have a record of this first. that you own for cryptography. But you also need to make sure that you provide whatever is needed so that someone can actually access those assets. ”He says these days that means the private key – or password – to your assets. , but that could change in the future.

If you have a non-fungible token (NFT), you’ll want to include it in your estate plan, but be aware that there isn’t a standard way to pass them on just yet. “They’re so new, they’re so new, and anything new and new usually doesn’t have an existing legal solution,” Hicks said. For now, he believes they will be treated the same as cryptocurrency, in that there is a digital coin or token that needs to be passed on to someone after you die.

The last big step you will want to take to protect your digital heritage is to choose someone who can make the wishes you have described come true. Not all online accounts you have will allow you to do this internally, and as long as it does, you must name someone in your will. This person, known as the digital executor, could be the same person as the executor you chose to carry out your other wishes, or it could be someone else. Either way, choose someone who has enough tech savvy so that you don’t get too overwhelmed with the task.

Name this person in your will. “It is important that your estate planning documents give your [digital] executor to access your digital assets, ”says Neeli Shah, an estate planning lawyer who has her own practice in Atlanta.

Digital estate planning laws are still in development. “Plan for [your digital estate] is very similar to planning for physical and monetary assets, ”says Shah. “It’s access that is very restrictive that is the problem. It’s slowly changing, ”she says, happily.

As tech companies and lawmakers seek to better protect your digital assets after your death, the best thing to do is start thinking about your own digital wealth. Shah says his clients, who are mostly in their 50s and 60s, have mostly never thought about digital estate planning. “So when I talk about it there’s that light bulb moment,” she says. “For me, it’s a victory.”

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Correction: A previous story misstated the name of the university where Catherine Ullman works. It’s the University of Buffalo, not the University of Buffalo.

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