If you have preferences about what happens to your digital footprint after your death, you need to take action. Otherwise, your online legacy will be determined for you—and not by you. If you have any online accounts, such as Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Apple, or Amazon, you have a digital legacy, and that legacy is yours to preserve or lose.
Following your death, unless you've planned ahead, some of your online accounts will survive indefinitely, while others automatically expire after a period of inactivity, and still, others have specific processes that let you give family and friends the ability to access and posthumously manage your accounts.
In part one and two of this series, we covered the processes that Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, and Apple offer to manage your digital accounts following your death. Here in part three, we'll conclude this series by covering the most effective methods for including digital assets in your estate plan.
5 Steps For Including Digital Assets In Your Estate Plan
If you're like most people, you likely own numerous digital assets, some of which may have significant monetary value and others that have purely sentimental value. You may even have some digital assets that you'd prefer your family not access at all when you pass away.
To ensure these assets are managed in exactly the way you want, take the following five steps to include this digital property in your estate plan. While many of these tasks you can do yourself, you'll definitely want to consult with us, your local Personal Family Lawyer® to ensure your estate plan is properly prepared and works exactly as you intend.
01 – Create A Detailed Asset Inventory, With Access Instructions
Start by creating a list of all digital assets you currently own. Then, for each asset, provide detailed information about where the asset is stored and how it can be accessed, including all of the relevant login information and passwords. If you have numerous different accounts, password manager programs, such as LastPass, can simplify this effort.
If you own cryptocurrency, it's essential that you prepare detailed instructions about how to access it, and ensure that one or more people you trust are aware that you own crypto and know how to find your instructions. Additionally, accessing cryptocurrency often requires complex user identification data and private keys.
Moreover, to effectively manage these assets the person you choose to control your crypto after your death will need to know how to use a variety of digital tools, such as online wallets, digital exchanges, and other programs. Given this, leaving a detailed “How To” guide can be an ideal way to ensure your loved ones can access your digital currency with minimal hassle.
After you've created your inventory and access instructions, store these documents in a secure location, with your other estate planning documents, and ensure your fiduciary (executor or trustee) and lawyer know how to access these documents should something happen to you. Finally, back up any digital assets stored in the cloud to a computer, flash drive, or another physical device to make them easier to manage. And remember to update your digital asset inventory regularly to account for any new digital property you acquire or accounts you close.
02 – Add Your Digital Assets To Your Estate Plan
The next step is adding your digital assets to your estate plan. As with other assets, you'll typically pass your digital property to your loved ones through either a will or a revocable living trust. Meet with us, your Personal Family Lawyer®, to determine which estate planning vehicles are best suited for your particular assets and situation.
From there, specify in your will or trust the person, or persons, you want to inherit each asset, and include detailed instructions for how you'd like each asset managed after your death if that's something you're interested in. On the other hand, some assets might have no value to your family or be something you don't want them to inherit or even access, so you should specify that those accounts be closed or deleted by your fiduciary.
One thing you should NEVER do is provide the account information, logins, or passwords in your planning documents, where others might read them. This is especially true for wills, which become part of the public record upon your death.
For maximum security, keep this sensitive information in a secure place, and let your fiduciary know how to find and use it. To make securing and managing your digital assets easier, consider using a digital management service, such as Directive Communication Systems, instead of trying to do everything yourself.
It's also a good idea to include terms in your estate plan allowing your fiduciary to hire an IT consultant if necessary, especially if your fiduciary doesn't have much technical experience, or if you have particularly valuable digital property. Having a consultant available can enhance your fiduciary's ability to manage and troubleshoot any challenges that come up.
Alternatively, you can designate a separate co-fiduciary just to manage your digital assets. Known as a digital executor, this individual is specifically tasked with managing your digital assets upon your death. If you have a lot of digital property or you own highly encrypted digital assets, like cryptocurrency, this option can be an optimal solution for safeguarding your online property.
03 – Limit Access
Your estate plan also needs to include instructions for your fiduciary about the specific level of access you want him or her to have. For example, do you want your executor or trustee to be able to read all your emails, texts, and social media posts before deleting them or passing them to your heirs?
If there are any assets you want to limit and/or restrict access to, we can help you add the necessary terms to your estate plan to ensure your wishes will be honored and your privacy protected.
04 – Include Relevant Hardware
Your estate plan should also include provisions for passing on any physical devices—smartphones, computers, tablets, flash drives—on which your digital assets are stored. Having this equipment will make it easier for your fiduciary to manage your online assets. And since the data contained on such hardware can be wiped clean, you can even leave this gear to someone other than the person who inherits the data stored on the devices.
05 – Check Service Providers' Access Authorization Tools
Review the terms and conditions for each of your online accounts and web-based service providers for how they handle your data after death. As discussed in the first two parts of this series, some platforms have features allowing you to give your family and friends the ability to access, manage, and delete your accounts after your death.
If such functions are offered, use them to document the individual(s) you want to access and manage these accounts. Just make certain those you named to inherit your digital assets using the providers' tools match the beneficiaries named in your estate plan. If not, the provider will probably give priority access to the person named with its tool, not your estate plan.
Adapt Your Estate Plan To The Evolving Digital Universe
As technology continues to evolve, it's essential to adapt your estate plan to keep pace with these changes. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we have the knowledge and experience to not only properly include your traditional assets in your estate plan, but all of your digital assets as well.
Indeed, we are keenly aware of just how valuable your digital property can be, and our Life & Legacy Planning Process is designed to ensure all of your assets—digital or otherwise—are protected, preserved, and passed on seamlessly to your loved ones in the event of your death or incapacity. Furthermore, we can ensure you have the maximum level of privacy, and you stay in full compliance with the latest laws governing the ever-changing digital universe. Contact us today to get started.
This article is a service of Jason Johnson, Personal Family Lawyer®. We do not just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That's why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you've ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 410-570-1671 to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.