Insights: Article

My Digital Estate

By Larry Evans

February 25, 2016

A few weeks ago, I was having a cup of morning coffee with friends and discussing the usual sports, weather and political topics when someone mentioned seeing a short video on what they said was a “digital estate.” They went on to explain that it referred to the social media accounts, computer documents and picture files everyone seems to have these days. We, mostly of the baby boomer generation, laughed about how only a few years ago most of the things that might be included in a digital estate probably didn’t exist. And, after enjoying the various jokes created by the age-related discussions, we moved on to hash out other topics of the day. However, later that same day, I couldn’t stop thinking about what my digital estate might look like.

I started thinking about the various items I touched on a daily basis that relied upon some type of electronic system to be created or maintained. In a short period of time, I had a sizable list. My list included investment accounts, business agreements,
retail accounts, flash drives, email accounts, investment documents, tax files, domain names and many more.

After making my list, my curiosity started to turn to concern; concern that I hadn’t considered these items in any of my planning, apparently thinking they would just be included in my other estate assets. But I now knew I had to learn more. Here’s a sampling of some thoughts I had on my digital estate and what I discovered.

Who Knows How to Get In?
While I know the access codes, user names and passwords for my digital assets, when the time comes to deal with them, the person handling my estate won’t, unless I somehow tell them.

Such digital access information would not be suitable to include in a will, which becomes a public document. This necessary information needs to be recorded and then either provided to someone of trust and confidence to hold, like your attorney, or placed in a private locked storage area, such as a safe deposit box. Because the password information should be changing regularly, access for making changes is critical. Once the filing system and location are determined, the location and means to access the information should be made known, again only to a trusted person.

Where Do My Digital Assets and Business Meet?
Although a lot of digital assets are more socially oriented, some others may have a connection to a business or revenue source and could cause financial damage if mishandled.

If digital assets, like domain names, trademarks or copyrighted materials, are owned by an individual, but used in a business, provision needs to be made for how those digital assets will be dealt with on death. Are costs to maintain a business domain name personally owned and being paid for by personal credit card? If the executor cancels the card, it could also cancel payment for the business domain name. This question and other similar ones need to be thought through and a decision made concerning the current use and structure of business-related digital assets.

What Happens to The Digital Me?
I may want some of my digital assets, primarily social media accounts and particularly personal electronic journals, to be destroyed upon my death, not wanting personal thoughts and comments to be shared among family members.

This becomes a highly personal decision, but unless you provide direction on how these things will be handled, information you have otherwise held closely could be unknowingly shared with the wrong people. These directions can become part of the information the executor uses to administer your estate and can be filed in the same location and with the same person utilized to store your digital access codes discussed above.

Do I Have a Digital Archive Somewhere?
Computer hardware, whatever type, needs to be dealt with, even old obsolete systems sitting in storage, because they probably hold personal or business data.

Is your computer used in a business operation that would suffer if the information on your computer was not available to the business? Do you have unpublished manuscripts, technical or other proprietary information on your computer that could have value? Do you store critical information, personal or business, on flash-drives that no one knows about or where they are located? How do you want your computer hardware to be handled on your death? These are the types questions that need to be resolved in your digital estate planning.

Am I Talking to the Right People?
And lastly, but with high importance, am I confident the person that will be my executor or personal representative is knowledgeable about
digital assets?

The person that I have chosen to be my estate executor/personal representative, in my opinion, would not have the knowledge to understand and deal with my digital estate. Therefore, I will be suggesting that my executor utilize a person that I am confident has such digital knowledge, or that the executor employ a person with such knowledge to assist in the administration of
my estate. It is a personal decision you must
also consider.

Each state has specific laws for the administration of an estate. Depending on your state of residence, the information and instructions suggested above may or may not be binding on an executor; that is for you and your attorney to discuss and decide upon. But, unless you provide the information related to your digital estate assets, regardless of legal requirement to follow them, your executor will not know your feelings and concerns and will not be able to consider such in the administration of your estate.

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