Securing Your Digital Assets

In just a few years digital assets sprouted from an emerging concern in estate planning to one of the more important issues to address. We’re moving from a paper world to a digital world, and many people don’t realize how important digital assets are to their lives or how valuable they are. They also don’t understand the major problems and headaches they leave by not including digital assets in their estate plans.

Your digital assets are divided into several categories, and some are far more important than others.

You likely have some purely or mostly personal digital assets. These can include e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and a personal web page. You also might have photos and other records or mementoes somewhere on the web. Increasingly, people are shifting information and assets to cloud storage sites, such as Dropbox and its many competitors. Some sites and software automatically store information on their servers transparently, so you might forget that it’s being stored. There might be financial value in these items, but they’re mostly personal or sentimental assets.

Your most valuable digital assets are likely to be bank and financial accounts. Related to them are automatic bill paying. The online bill paying is convenient while you’re around, but it could continue for some time if you don’t keep a record and include them in your estate plan.

Online bank and financial accounts are growing in use. Many people no longer receiving paper statements. That works fine for you, but it can make it hard for your executor and heirs to locate all your assets and manage them.

A third category is business digital assets. All or part of your business records might be online.

Only five states currently have laws covering the transfer of digital assets: Connecticut, Idaho, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island. The rest are waiting for the Uniform Commission on State Laws to issue a recommended statute. Even the existing laws don’t cover much. Some simply say that a designated beneficiary or executor has to be given the passwords for and access to e-mails.

You have to take the lead. Be sure digital assets are an integrated element of your estate plan. It doesn’t cost much. An additional paragraph in your will and powers of attorney usually covers it, after you’ve taken some key steps.

Take inventory of your digital assets. You need a comprehensive list of the web sites where you have some presence or interest, including how to access your accounts. There likely are a number of sites you view routinely and don’t realize should be part of your inventory. Pay attention and keep a list of sites where your entry is password-protected.

Your list can be on paper or on a digital file such as Microsoft Word or Excel. There also are web sites and software that perform the service for you, sometimes for a fee. Once you create the list, be sure to update it. The list also can save you a lot of trouble for those times when you forget a password.

Decide how these assets should be handled and transferred as part of your estate plan. The treatment will depend on the type of account.

For personal accounts, such as Facebook or a personal web site, there generally are three choices. You could ask that it be maintained indefinitely as is. You could have it shift to some kind of memorial status in which your passing is noted, and then it might be maintained indefinitely or closed after a period. As part of this process, you could authorize a transfer of the photos, writings, and other digital files to one or more individuals.

Keep in mind that many sites have a policy governing the accounts of deceased members. They aren’t likely to do anything unless your executor or family members tell them. The account likely will be handled however you want if you simply give the access information to a designated person.

For financial and business accounts, your executor will need the access information and instructions in the will on how to handle the assets. In most cases, the executor will manage assets during the estate probate period and then transfer them to your beneficiary of choice.

Incorporate your instructions in the estate planning documents. There isn’t much involved here. The estate planner will include the appropriate language in the estate planning documents along with the instructions on your other assets.

Another step is to create a digital power of attorney. This empowers someone to receive your access information from online account hosts. That’s especially helpful if you overlook a site when compiling your inventory or neglect to note new access information. It isn’t assured that each web site will honor the power of attorney, but it doesn’t hurt to have the authorization in place.

The key to an effective estate plan for your digital assets is to compile and then maintain a list of the accounts, sites, and access information. Your estate planner and executor need to know where you store the list. Some planners recommend that the list be kept on a usb drive or similar device and then stored in a fireproof safe or other secure location.

If you wonder if these steps really are necessary, ask an estate planner. Most now can relate stories of steps heirs and executors had to go through to obtain access to e-mail and other accounts. Often, the hosting companies refuse to divulge the information and the executor has to hire a computer expert to sift through a computer’s hard drive for the passwords.