Your digital presence has become more important than ever and upon death, family members may find themselves locked out of some of your important digital assets if you don’t have a digital estate plan in place. I don’t just mean “fun” accounts like your Instagram and Facebook, this can include important accounts like email and treasured digital photos that you don’t want to lose when someone passes away or banking and investment accounts that will make settling the estate much easier. When you go through the estate planning process, digital assets are often overlooked because most of them do not pass through your will. However, it is important that you create a digital estate plan. While a “digital estate plan” is not a technical or legal term, it describes what you want to happen with these assets after you die.
The inheritance of real property is managed by you will, however many digital assets are not able to be transferred through your will. That’s because as a user of a digital service, you often don’t have the right to transfer your account to anyone else. For services like email and social media, you do not typically own the actual account (though you may own the copyright to published content) and you are limited by the provider’s terms and conditions. This can be extremely frustrating when some of these accounts are important to you or your heirs.
Here are some of your digital property that you may want to consider planning for:
- Email accounts
- Social media accounts
- Computer files, online backups, iTunes music, Dropbox, etc.
- Cell phone
- Digital photos
- Websites or blogs – hosting and domains
- Paid apps and subscriptions like cell phone service, Netflix, etc.
- Online login for other financial services – banking, insurance, etc.
- Cryptocurrency wallets
- Airline and hotel loyalty programs/points
Catalog Your Digital Assets
The first step to developing your digital estate plan is to take inventory of all your digital assets. While you are at it, to make life easier for the executor, you should also have a similar inventory of your non-digital assets as well. Just imagine the challenge having to access, liquidate, and cancel a variety of services, bills, accounts, insurance policies, etc. without even knowing what accounts to look for.
You’ll want to put some thought into this step as you will find more and more accounts the longer you think about it. One tip for finding your accounts is to go through your emails to remind you of services you may rarely use. Additionally, you can try searching your email for terms like “registration” or “new account” as you’ll often receive confirmation messages after signing up for a new service.
Create a Digital Estate Plan to Pass Down the Important Digital Assets
If you want the smoothest transition of your digital assets upon death, it’s best to be proactive and create a digital estate plan. The simplest solution is to create a document that lists your accounts and login credentials (username and password) for each account you identified in the previous step. In this document you should also leave any additional instructions about how to access the accounts and what you’d like them to do with each one, who it should each account go to, whether you want them to keep it, close it, etc.
You’ll obviously want to make sure to keep this document in a secure place where the executor knows where to find it. For security reasons, please don’t just save a document titled “passwords” on your desktop. If you opt for this route of making a list of logins, I’d highly recommend printing the document and storing it somewhere like a safe deposit box which will naturally be turned over to the executor upon death.
A great alternative to simply writing down the login information is to use a service like LastPass where you can securely store all your digital logins. What makes this perfect, aside from only having a single login to share with your heirs, they have an emergency access feature which provides access to a designated user if you are unable to reject their request. It’s a similar concept to a dead man’s switch. There are also dedicated services like Vault12 which are focused on ensuring digital assets can be accessed by future generations.
Lastly, pay attention to the options available for specific services because some services, like Google, have built-in functionality to support sharing your account data with certain people for a limited time with granular controls about what they can access.
What if There Was No Plan in Place?
If you don’t have a plan to pass down your digital assets in place, all hope is not lost. Some of these services mentioned above have a non-digital component that is accessible using an executor’s traditional authority, however, it may just take some extra work and they won’t be able to do it online. For example, while you may not have the decedent’s bank account login, as the executor, you’ll still be able to contact the bank and access the funds in the account after showing them the proper documentation. However, it is important to note that a failure to plan for the transfer of digital assets after death will result in certain accounts and data being permanently unretrievable.