Just as you organize your physical possessions and financial accounts, you need to organize and plan for your digital estate now. Otherwise, according to the recent article “Why You Need a Digital Estate Plan and How to Make One” from Next Avenue, you will leave a giant mess for your family.
Virginia enacted the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act in 2017, allowing an executor or administrator of an estate, the trustee of a living trust, the guardian and conservator of an incapacitated person, and the agent under a power of attorney, to manage a person’s digital assets, including computer files, web domains, and even virtual currency. Nearly all states have already passed similar laws to give a person’s family or their executor the right to access and manage some of their digital assets after they die. However, if the digital platform does not allow an executor or anyone to access and manage accounts, the problem will not be easily resolved.
Facebook has created a “Legacy Contact” and Google has an “Inactive Account Manager,” but they only work if you take the time to go through the process in advance. Sharing passwords and instructions or setting up an online password manager may or may not solve the problem for the 200 other accounts. Why?
Increasing security means that many accounts require confirmation codes, typically sent to a mobile phone or email address, before an account may be accessed. If the phone or email is locked, then access will be impossible. Two-factor authentication makes it harder for digital criminals to access your accounts, but it also makes it difficult for heirs and executors. Some people have taken a step into the future to have their accounts opened via facial recognition. How then do you access accounts?
Not all digital accounts and services have the same requirements for access.
Here is a way to think about your digital estate: what is the level of importance for each account? If it were deleted and all contents removed, how would it impact your life? Is it a “single sign on,” where credentials are needed to log into other accounts? Are there payment methods attached to the account, like automatic withdrawals or credit cards?
Many accounts may be dormant, like an old email address you stopped using ten years ago. However, what about the important accounts that are central to the business of your life, like checking and savings accounts, or personal email?
Tech giants like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple have made their way into many aspects of our lives. If you have a library of ebooks, or an online gaming presence with digital assets, would you wish to maintain those assets? Think about all the autopayment accounts that you have—and how much money your estate would lose if those accounts could not be shut down.
Once you have identified all of your important accounts, examine them one by one to see what if they have a legacy process. Then start thinking about what you would like to happen to the accounts and their contents, in case of your incapacity or death. Having a digital estate plan today is not futuristic at all—it’s how we live, and our estate plans should be updated accordingly.
Your estate planning attorney will know what your state’s laws are for digital assets, just as they do for more traditional assets.
Last word: do not include your usernames or passwords in your will. A will becomes a public document upon probate, and this information must be protected from identity thieves if the accounts are to remain secure.
Reference: Next Avenue (Jan. 1, 2021) “Why You Need a Digital Estate Plan and How to Make One”