Today, more of our lives are being conducted digitally by email, blogs, social media accounts, computer storage of digital pictures and online bank and investment accounts. However, many individuals may not realize that these digital assets are an essential consideration in estate planning.
Currently, some states such as California, Florida and Michigan have enacted laws concerning the treatment of digital assets in an estate plan. At the same time, some technology companies have created procedures for accounts to be shut down after a user’s death.
Google’s Inactive Account Manager feature, for example, allows a user to designate a trusted person as manager of a Google service once it becomes inactive. The manager can obtain access to the user’s emails, videos, and data in the account, download the data, and the account can be deleted. In addition, Facebook has a feature that allows a user to select a “legacy contract” naming a family member or friend to manage the account after the user’s death and arrange to have the account permanently deleted.
Despite these features, many individuals tend not to think about death when they are engaging in social media, sharing photos, or tweeting their latest random observation on Twitter. Although this aspect of trusts and estate law is largely unsettled, there are steps that can be taken now to protect digital assets.
In a typical estate plan, an executor or a trustee is named to manage and distribute a person’s assets after he or she dies, and digital assets should be included in that determination. Regardless of who is selected to act in this capacity, this individual must have access to the passwords for all online accounts.
At the same time, this information should not be included in a will, since that is a public document that is filed in court.
Instead, the will or trust should provide instructions on the management of digital assets. This requires creating an inventory of all online email and social media accounts, memberships, bank and investment accounts, and subscriptions. That list should also identify web addresses, user id’s, passwords, and account numbers. The executor or trustee should also be provided with this information and guidance on how to handle these accounts.
Because this area of law is evolving, it is crucial to work with an experienced estate planning attorney at Schneiders & Associates, LLP, who can help protect your digital assets and ensure your plan adheres to any applicable state laws.