Your email inbox may not be as romantic as an old box of faded letters, but if something happens to you, your loved ones will have to deal with it all the same.
While intangible, digital assets are as real as any other asset. If you use the internet regularly, you likely have accounts that need to be closed. You may have credit card information saved online. It will be your personal representative or your trustee’s responsibility to close these accounts to protect your estate from identity theft or fraud.
When you create a thoughtful, thorough estate plan, you include not only access to these websites and accounts, but you also describe your wishes for your personal representative or trustee to follow. Consider whether an account contributes to your legacy or has monetary value in order to determine how to handle this asset in your estate.
If an internet account neither has implications for legacy nor has monetary value, it can be closed after you have passed away. These might be retail accounts or subscriptions to websites.
Digital Assets that Are Part of Your Legacy
Some websites hold our precious memories: photographs, correspondence, and thoughts. You may have specific instructions for your personal representative or trustee to transfer this account to someone who can manage your public legacy online.
Some of these websites, such as Facebook, have realized the importance of creating a memorial plan. For many people, Facebook is a place where they have gathered their memories over the course of many years.
It is also a place where people go to mourn a lost loved one. After a death, many people post their condolences to the deceased’s profile page.
Facebook has a memorial feature that can be activated in the event of your death. You may also appoint a “legacy contact” through the settings on your Facebook profile, so someone can manage your posts and content.
You may also specify that you wish your account to be memorialized for a certain period of time and then removed entirely. Be clear in your wishes.
While other websites don’t necessarily have a specific memorial feature, you can still appoint a legacy contact or create specific instructions for them. Their content can be downloaded and stored.
Digital Assets that Have Monetary Value
If you own your own website, you will need to provide not only login access for your power of attorney, personal representative, or trustee, but you will also need to create a clear plan for your site.
If you wish for your site to continue to exist, you can provide funds for maintaining the site in the details of your estate plan. You may also nominate a person to oversee this maintenance.
On the internet, it seems that things are both short-lived and around forever. Your personal representative or trustee should use the website www.archive.org to preserve your website in the Internet Archive before they remove it from the internet.
Digital assets can make up a significant part of your estate. For example, if you use the internet to earn money, even if it’s through a platform such as Etsy or Amazon, someone needs to handle these accounts in your absence.
If your estate goes to probate and your assets are frozen, your digital assets will be counted among them. Any money earned in these accounts during probate may not be accessible to your loved ones. Your attorney can help you potentially avoid these situations.
If you own a domain name that is particularly valuable and desirable, then it could be in your estate’s best interest to sell off these assets after your death.
No matter what, the most important action you can take is quite easy: keep a list of your accounts, usernames, and passwords in a place that’s easily accessible for your personal representative or trustee.
Print the list and put it with your power of attorney documents and other important documents, and update it regularly.
Digital assets can cause a mess if they are not handled properly. Domain names that are not maintained can be sold off to far-away places and replaced with inappropriate content that could damage your legacy. Accounts that are not regularly updated lack proper security and can be susceptible to hackers. Even after your death, your estate could run into issues with identity theft and fraud.
You might think that because it’s online it “isn’t real.” But we all know that what happens on the internet doesn’t always stay on the internet. It can have serious implications for your real-life and loved ones. Protect yourself and your loved ones by making a plan for your digital assets.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article should not be considered tax or legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently and the information in this article may not reflect your own state's laws or the most recent changes in state or federal law. For current tax and legal advice, please consult with an accountant or attorney licensed to practice in your state.