So much of our lives take place online, but we don’t often think about what happens to our digital assets when we’re no longer here to manage them. It’s important to plan for our digital footprint after we’re gone to prevent any financial or sentimental losses. And while laws and regulations surrounding data and digital assets are still evolving, there are steps you can take now to prepare.
Digital asset inventory
Making a list of the digital accounts you own can help your loved ones protect your memories as well as your estate and identity. Be thorough with your inventory and include as many assets as possible, including login info for online portals or online accounts.
Your list of digital assets may include:
☐ Social media accounts
☐ Subscription services
☐ Email accounts
☐ Online banking accounts
☐ Credit card accounts
☐ Utility accounts
☐ Contact lists
☐ Shopping accounts
☐ Photo and video sharing and storage accounts
☐ Smartphone, computer, tablet or cloud data
☐ Existing digital collections
☐ Websites or blogs you maintain
☐ Online marketplace stores
☐ Domain names
☐ Cryptocurrency keys
☐ Text, graphic and audio files (or other intellectual property)
How will they be accessed?
Once you’ve accounted for all your digital assets, you need to incorporate them into your estate plan.
One major challenge your beneficiaries may face when dealing with your digital assets is that most accounts are protected by private passwords, and they may also be protected by laws surrounding data privacy and unauthorized access to computer systems.
The terms-of-service agreements of online services may add even more restrictions on access. If you don’t leave specific instructions regarding who can access these assets (and how), your loved ones may not even be able to recover your digital assets legally.
Fortunately, service providers and the law are evolving to help handle digital assets after death. Many states have adopted the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA), which lays out three tiers for accessing digital assets:
Tier 1: If a digital service provides a tool to designate what happens to assets after you die, this designation guides what happens to the account. For example, if you used Google’s inactive account manager to designate a family member, this designation would guide what happens to your Google assets.
Tier 2: If there isn’t any tool, then the owner’s directions in a will or legal document determine the handling of the account or asset.
Tier 3: If neither of the first two scenarios are present, the terms-of-service agreement dictates how those accounts can be accessed. As mentioned, those agreements often restrict access to the original owner.
While laws and regulations surrounding data and digital assets are still evolving, there are steps you can take now to prepare.
Prepare your digital estate
With that in mind, how can you plan for your digital estate? Start with these steps:
Prepare email accounts: These may be one of the most important assets to plan for because they allow your beneficiaries to access bills and notifications, and often serve as access credentials for other digital services. The content of your email may also be important for sentimental value, or help to settle the estate. Do note that, as a privacy measure, the RUFADAA does require you to leave specific permission for an executor to access email messages.
Inventory your logins: Make a list of assets with usernames and passwords and include the credentials so that your estate manager can access them. Remember though, that this information shouldn’t be included in your will, as that becomes a public document when you die. Record them separately and make sure your executor can find them. Password management software like LastPass or Dashlane may be useful for this because they can store multiple passwords but need only one to access.
Outline your wishes: List your intentions for each asset or account. Should your social media accounts be deleted immediately, or should the contents be archived? What about digital assets that have monetary value or generate revenue, such as a website or online storefront?
Name a separate executor: Consider naming a digital executor to carry out your wishes for your digital assets. This may not be necessary if your estate’s main executor is comfortable managing digital assets as well, but if you have particularly valuable digital assets or have specific privacy wishes, it may be smart to name a separate, specific digital executor.
Find safe storage: Store your digital estate plans in a safe place and give instructions for accessing those plans to the people who will be managing your estate after you are gone. This could be with an attorney, online storage platform or in a secure safe or file cabinet.
The process of digital estate planning may still be developing but taking these steps will help your loved ones protect your memories and better manage your estate.