Law FAQ: What is Digital Estate Planning?

Law FAQ: What is Digital Estate Planning?

Death in the digital age is a lot more complicated than it used to be.  In the past, it was easy to search paper records and watch the mail for bills and account statements to gather information about an estate.  It’s not so easy today.  Now many, if not all, records are filed or transmitted electronically, online.  And unfortunately, people have not left the passwords and location for the electronic records that the surviving family members will need.

In many cases, survivors may not even be aware of the existence of accounts or assets, prompting a load of questions: Can we find this stuff? Which computer is it on? Is it stored in the cloud? What about the smartphone? Can we circumvent the password or decrypt the data?

But there are other potential pitfalls, too. What, for example, happens to your social-network accounts when you die? Some people want them perpetuated while some people them destroyed.  Instructions should be provided and included with the list of passwords that are going to go to their survivors.

You should also consider potential liabilities lurking in your digital estate. For example, what if you have trade secrets or other sensitive information on your computer and, after your death, your family donates the computer for recycling without wiping the hard drive clean? If that trade secret falls into the wrong hands, your estate might be liable.

Digital-savvy estate planners advise clients to take three basic steps. First, do a complete inventory of all digital accounts and assets (see Digital Assets Checklist below) so that your estate administrator will know just what you have of potential value (or liability) and where it is. Second, assemble a list of all passwords. Third, select a fiduciary and give them the proper power to administer your estate and follow through with your wishes.

Digital Assets Checklist

• Home-security systems

• Smartphones

• Computers

• Voice mail

• Email accounts

• Cloud storage

• Social-network accounts

• Web pages and blogs

• Financial accounts (banks, stock trading, tax, etc.)

• Online sales and purchasing accounts

• Domain names

• Intellectual-property rights (manuscripts, music, photographs, etc.)

• Video games and virtual worlds

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