Make Sure You Have A Digital Estate Plan

Jalene Hahn |

I store a lot of things online: photos, recipes and documents. I occasionally post things to Facebook, LinkedIn or WhatsApp. I communicate electronically with friends through email and messaging apps. I also have a PayPal account and a Venmo account.

These are just some of the examples of activities that make up our digital footprint. Some of these items will be important to my heirs, and others they couldn’t care less about. Creating a digital estate plan will identify, protect and provide my heirs guidance on my preferences for each asset. I will also need a digital executor to legally manage their disposition.

A digital estate plan is important to maintaining access to treasured photos, stories, and communication for loved ones. Without proper planning, your heirs could wind up losing access to these personal treasures. The other main reason is to prevent identity theft or fraud. Understanding your digital footprint is the first step. Here are some items that make up that digital footprint:

◗ Financial accounts: online banking, investment accounts and cryptocurrency wallets.

◗ Digital media: photos, videos, music and documents stored on electronic devices or cloud services.

◗ Social media accounts: profiles on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

◗ Online businesses: websites, domain names and digital storefronts.

◗ Intellectual property: copyrighted works, patents and digital licenses.

◗ Personal data: personal emails, digital subscriptions and online memberships.

The first step is documenting how big or small your digital footprint is and how important each asset is to you and your heirs. I am sure my kids will not care what my high score for a computer game was, but I hope they will care about where I have stored vacation and baby pictures. Gaining access to your accounts after your death will require someone to know usernames, passwords, security questions and more. As you document your digital assets, I cannot overemphasize how important password security is in preventing fraud and identity theft. This information is not something you want lying around or in an unprotected file on your computer. I strongly recommend using an online password manager.

A digital executor has similar responsibilities to an executor named in your will. You want to appoint someone who is tech-savvy and trustworthy and will be able to handle sensitive information securely and with discretion. Responsibilities of a digital executor include accessing, managing and distributing or deleting digital assets according to the grantor’s wishes. Once you have identified your digital executor, you should have a conversation about your accounts and what you wish to have happen to the information or account.

Most online password management systems will allow you to designate emergency access to trusted individuals in case of incapacity or death. This might not be sufficient authorization to access accounts. State laws vary, and each account will have its own terms of service that need to be navigated. Reading the Terms of Service will guide you in your options for handling accounts after the user’s death. In general, these options include memorialization, deactivation or account closure. In most instances, transfer of ownership is not an option.

As the digital industry evolves, so do the laws and regulations. Working with an attorney who understands legal and regulatory protocols in the areas of privacy laws, terms of service agreements and jurisdictional issues can be beneficial and save time and money in the long run. Specific permissions and wording need to be included in any document that will grant legal authority to the digital executor to act on your behalf. Having detailed instructions will help mitigate potential disputes or confusion.

Most people don’t think about their digital life and what will happen to it when they are gone. Taking an inventory of your digital assets will help you identify what accounts you have and whether you need additional security on any of those accounts. It also will help your heirs access memories and close accounts that are no longer needed.