When making estate plans, it’s important for people to consider all their property—and that means their digital property too. With the advent of social media, email, online banking and trading, smartphones and apps, and other innovations that allow everyone to stay connected, perform tasks, create, and work more efficiently, a tremendous amount of data is generated. But, the question is, what happens to your digital assets (your accounts, photos, and information) when you pass away? It’s a question not many people think about when making their estate plans, though, as it’s becoming increasingly clear, it’s a question that is all too important.
What’s at stake
Konrad Malik, an estate lawyer working in Chicago, explains how important it is for people to think about their digital assets when they’re making their estate plans. “Think about what it would be like if none of your heirs were able to access family photos and videos, your social media accounts, or critical financial information. It’s a difficult situation, and one that is often not easy to resolve.”
Elliot Raphaelson makes a similar point in a recent article about digital assets in the Chicago Tribune. “Because of federal privacy laws, most Internet companies won’t be able to ensure that access unless you have taken specific steps beforehand.”
Making a plan
There are certain concrete steps that people can take to ensure that their digital assets can be accessed after their death or incapacitation. As Konrad Malik mentions, “There are a few simple things you can do to pass your digital assets along to your loved ones in a way that presents as few obstacles as possible.”
First, you should take an inventory of all your accounts and the associated usernames and passwords. This step can help you determine the extent of your digital assets and also help you think about how you want to handle their transition to your heirs.
Establish a method by which you can store the access information for your digital assets (logins, passwords, etc.) This might take the form of a password manager, like LastPass or 1Password, or a secure list that can be shared through Dropbox or a similar platform.
It’s also a smart idea to create a backup for your data that’s stored in the cloud. If you can put your most important digital assets on a computer or other storage device (like an external hard drive or a USB drive), it will make it easier for your heirs to access that information later.
Malik also mentions that it can be helpful to look over terms of service agreements for your accounts to see whether password sharing is allowed, or if a user’s account can be transferred by the user.
Finally, make a plan with an estate attorney to grant access to your heirs and fiduciaries through legal documents. It’s essential to think carefully about how much access to give to your heirs. A blanket authorization may not be the correct choice for everyone, and it may not be appropriate to make all your digital assets accessible.