Estate Planning and Digital Assets

It wasn’t very long ago that we used paper as our main source of communication, record keeping, and note-taking. All tax records, bank statements, and letters were kept in filing cabinets.  It was easy to tell a loved one, “If something happens to me, everything important is in there.”  But since the advent of the computer, internet, email, and social networking, the vast majority of our data is online.

In fact, a recent survey found that 92% of American children have a digital presence before the age of two.  As the internet has become more prevalent, and more and more statements and records are going paperless, we must now include our “digital assets” in our estate planning.

What are digital assets?

Digital assets include such things as scanned documents or electronic financial statements, computer program files and other records, Facebook pages, blogs, email accounts, and photos stored digitally either on your personal computer or an online account.

One big concern is that most of this information is password protected. Unless we make arrangements in advance, family members or administrators may not be able to access these and the information could be lost forever.

Planning for your digital assets is similar to estate planning for other assets. There are multiple ways in which you can safely pass on your digital accounts.  For instance, if you have a Google account, you can use the Inactive Account Manager service to appoint another individual who will be granted access to your data if you do not log in within a set period of time.  Other tools include secure password managers such as 1Password or LastPass.  Services such as these serve as a digital wallet that store credentials for all your accounts with a single username and password to access the data.

Alternatively, and at a minimum, you could make a list of each of your digital accounts you have with the usernames, passwords, PIN numbers and any other relevant information. Keep this list in a safe place and tell your spouse or successor where it is.

Note: Don’t store it unprotected on your computer; if it is stolen, the thief would have all of your passwords. If you store it on your computer, password protect the file and give that information to your spouse or successor.

Think about what you want to happen to these assets. For example, if you have a website or blog and you want it to continue, you need to leave instructions for keeping it up or having someone take it over and continue it. If a site is currently producing or could produce income (e-books, photography, videos, blogs), make sure your successor knows this. If there are things on your computer or hard drive that you want to pass on (scanned family photos, ancestry research, a book you have been writing), put them in a “Do Not Delete” folder and include it on your inventory list.

This will take some time and thought. But, just like estate planning, the more you can do now to put things in order, the easier it will be for your family later.