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Digital estate planning

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September 22nd, 2014

You probably have an estate plan in place to pass on assets like real estate and investment accounts to your heirs. But have you thought about what will happen to your so-called digital assets, which include everything from online photo albums and music collections to email and social media accounts to blogs and online bank accounts?

Jamie Hopkins, a professor at The American College of Financial Services (theamericancollege.edu), says Internet usage has grown rapidly in recent years, and the average user produces 450 pages of information online. He says a 2011 study estimates that the average Internet user has amassed a digital estate worth $55,000—which is why it’s increasingly important to make sure your family knows how to access your digital assets and what to do with them.

Holly Isdale, a financial consultant and tax attorney, is the founder of DigitalDeath.com, a website with information about and resources for digital estate planning. She says the ramifications can be real and damaging when someone dies without a digital estate plan.

The repercussions

On one end of the spectrum, your family could suffer emotional distress when they’re unable to access things with sentimental value like your online photo albums. And there can be tangible financial implications as well. For instance, if you’ve been paying bills through online accounts, and your surviving spouse doesn’t have the passwords, he or she could be hit with late charges. In an even worst case scenario, Isdale says, recurring charges linked to an account that gets closed, like magazine subscriptions on your iPad, could result in a lien against your estate. 

“Families spend a lot of time inventorying the art, silver, etc., but digital assets are just as important,” Isdale says.

So, how can you protect your digital estate?

Massachusetts estate planning attorney Ramsey Bahrawy (bahrawylaw.com) says to begin by making a list of all online assets, along with the passwords to access secure accounts. Include everything from your Netflix account to your online brokerage account. Once you’ve got a list of your digital assets, you need to make sure it ends up in the right hands after your death. Bahrawy says federal and state laws around digital assets are rapidly evolving, so have your local advisor review your plan.

Digital executor

Bahrawy says appointing a power of attorney to manage digital assets is not effective because that document becomes invalid after your death. Instead, he suggests setting up a revocable trust and attaching your list of digital assets and passwords to that trust. You should also name a digital executor. That can be the same person as your primary executor. If your primary executor isn’t tech savvy or you have complex digital property, such as software or intellectual property, consider choosing a separate digital executor. Whether or not you set up a trust, Bahrawy says not to include online accounts and passwords in your will because wills become public documents. 

“The rights of executors, agents, guardians, and beneficiaries with regard to digital assets are muddy,” Bahrawy says. “Prudent planning can help ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that digital assets are passed in accordance with terms of a trust.”

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