Do you own digital assets?
The answer may surprise you.
Digital assets are a function of our "plugged in" 21st-century lifestyle – which can often be a frenetic rush between posting on Instagram and Facebook, checking online bank accounts, and monitoring your cloud-based music collection. Digital assets include things like online banking statements, Instagram posts and followers, social media posts, PayPal accounts, Facebook sites, and other digital expressions which are found not in your closet or safe at home, but in the digital cloud or in your hard drive. Most of us take these assets for granted, but have you ever thought about what would happen to these when you pass away?
Digital Estate Plan
A good digital estate plan will give direction to your heirs about how to access and handle your digital assets upon your death. It will express your wishes and allow your executor to take care of transferring these assets upon your death.
Some companies (Google, for example) have created features allowing you direct them what you want done with your digital assets on their services (like Gmail, Blogger, Google Drive, Google+, Picasa, Google Voice and YouTube) when you die. You may have to dig into the terms and conditions portions of these companies' websites, but it would be worth looking into this as you develop your plan.
Consider for a moment the value of all the information which you may have stored on your hard drives or in the cloud. If you are a wedding photographer for a living, for example, you probably have thousands of photos on your hard drive or in the cloud. I checked my iCloud Photos this morning while writing this blog, and I have 24,581 shared pictures and 3,581 videos on my phone/iPad/iMac. Some of those are snapshots of grocery store items that I sent to my wife to make sure I'm buying the right cauliflower, but most of them are treasured memories of my family at home, on vacation, or elsewhere.
A digital estate plan helps streamline the transfer of these assets, but most of us have not put much thought into this. So what do you do to solve this?
Here are some steps to help you:
Inventory your Digital Assets.
Make a list of all the digital assets you own. You should have a clear list of all the sites, blogs, storage facilities, etc. and how to find them. Then you should have all your online passwords so that your executor can get to your inventory. Warning: Be careful! If you keep these inventory lists and access lists together, please keep them in a safe and secure place. If someone steals the lists together, they could wreak havoc on your bank account or other digital assets.
Your digital inventory could include the following:
- Your Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and other social media accounts.
- Blogs and websites.
- Online Bank, brokerage, retirement plan, credit card, loan, and insurance accounts.
- Email, texts, communication app accounts.
- iCloud, Google, and other accounts
- Online retail accounts; online travel accounts (Amazon, Delta Airlines)
- Video and Photo sharing sites (YouTube, Vimeo).
- Music sites (iTunes, Pandora, Spotify).
- Online payment accounts (like PayPal).
- Utility bills paid online.
- Data storage accounts
- Software backup accounts
- Subscription-based software accounts (like Microsoft, Google Docs)
(If you are a business owner, you should have an inventory of all such accounts for your business as well.)
I recommend using an app like 1Password or PwSafe to keep all your passwords and usernames and website locations for these digital assets. These apps create a "digital locker" which can be accessed on your phone or computer by your executor, once you give them the encrypted key. Of course, you need to make sure that all these are updated regularly, and again, be careful who has access to the master key!
Store this Information in a Safe Place
Again, be careful who has access to this important personal information. Digital thieves could steal this information if you are not careful. If you write down these lists, store them with your important personal documents (in a safe or safety deposit box). You could give a copy of these lists to your executor, spouse, lawyer, or other trusted advisor, with specific instructions on maintaining their safekeeping.
Tell your Heirs what to do with these Assets
It is a good idea to include instructions to your executor or heirs about each of these digital assets when you pass away, or even if you are incapacitated. Your will should address the distribution of personal property, but you may have more specific instructions regarding the online assets you own -- i.e., who can access those photos of you. Also, if your executor knows how to access your online bank statements, the administration of your estate should go more smoothly.
You should also consider what you want to do with your social media accounts upon your death. Do you want to keep your Instagram account open? Do you want your Facebook to be shut down? What about access to copies of photos, videos, and other memories of your life?
Sometimes your social media terms and conditions will address these questions, but you should know what you desire so that your heirs have direction and instruction about your wishes. Look at each digital asset to determine what your heirs will be able to do according to your End User License Agreement for these services.
Who should be in Charge?
You will need to appoint an executor over these assets -- so as you consider appointing a general executor, consider whether that person can also handle the transition of digital assets. If necessary, you may need to appoint a separate person to deal with these special assets for you. It may be a good idea to name a "Digital Executor" along with your standard Executor. Some of your assets may be very valuable (for example, photos, digital artwork, letters on your computer, unfinished novels, unfinished song ideas, GarageBand recordings, memoirs), so make sure that you appoint and direct someone to oversee these assets with care, concern, and impartiality.
Some people have memorials on their tombstones, letters to their children and grandchildren delivered to them after death, or final words to share with their friends -- so consider having a final post on your social media sites to your friends, family and followers. This could be something special, parting words of comfort, a quote from Scripture, or any number of things to add to your legacy. Consider instructing your executor on your wishes after your death. You may also wish to leave your children or grandchildren with copies of photos, etc. on a thumb drive with a letter describing this parting gift. Be creative!
Managing your digital assets is an important part of the estate plan of the modern 21st century American. Be thoughtful as you plan for your legacy, and consider ways to transfer these digital gems to the next generation!
Have you worked on a digital estate plan? Do you have other ideas to help protect and transfer these assets? Comment below!