In the 21st century, nearly all Californians have some kind of digital asset – an email account, text messages, online banking, or social media postings, to name a few. When planning their estate, not everyone considers what will happen to these digital assets after their deaths. To protect your digital life and make things easier for your executor and heirs, spend some time estate planning for your digital assets.
Families usually face two significant problems when handling the estate of a person with digital assets: (1) they do not have the user names and passwords, and (2) they do not know what the deceased wants to happen to the digital assets. Fortunately, you can avoid both of these problems through advance planning.
Lack of access to online log-in information causes many problems such as inability to determine which bank accounts the deceased held, unpaid bills that arrive through email, and even identity theft. If you have digital financial assets such as Bitcoin or online-only bank and retirement accounts, your executor will need to access them to administer your estate. However, many websites’ terms of service prohibit third parties such as relatives from gaining access to a user’s account. Even if family tries to contact companies and explaining that a relative is deceased, most companies will not release the user log-in information.
To solve this problem, people planning their estates can maintain a “virtual asset instruction letter”, essentially a list of user names and passwords accessible after their deaths by their estate executors or other representatives. This letter could be as simple as a handwritten list of passwords or as complicated as a password-protected file stored on a secure, encrypted hard drive. In addition, you might consider enacting a power of attorney that specifies that your agent can gain access to certain online accounts during your lifetime. Further, you could take advantage of the services some websites provide that can help manage user information, such as Google’s Inactive Account Manager.
Executors and representatives may realize, after recovering user names and passwords, that they have no idea how the deceased wanted the digital assets to be used. Some people want their digital lives to remain private, while others want their relatives to have access to their online information. Whether to deactivate or delete a Facebook account is one example of a difficult digital asset decision.
To avoid having your intent as to digital assets misinterpreted after your death, we recommend that you add instructions to your virtual asset instruction letter or to your other estate planning documents. You could specify that you want your executor or representative to delete certain accounts, post a certain message on your Facebook on your behalf, or download photos from a photo-sharing website and give them to a relative. Whatever choices you make as to the disposition of your digital assets after you pass away, planning ahead and giving instructions now is key.
Planning your estate? Angela Klenk, Esq. and the team at Beach Cities Estate Law couple personalized attention to your estate plan with big law firm experience for a winning combination to give you peace of mind. To schedule a case evaluation, visit Beach Cities Estate Law online or call (424) 400-2125.