What Is Digital Estate Planning?

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What Is Digital Estate Planning?

Digital estate planning is estate planning for digital or online assets, such as e-mail, text messages, websites, financial or personal information, and social networking accounts. Digital estate planning is a new field, so there are no federal statutes and only a handful state laws regarding digital assets.

Most rules regarding digital estate planning come from user agreements and the policies of tech companies. Currently, private user agreements with companies like Facebook or Google drive digital estate planning rather than legislative statutes.

Why Do I Want Digital Estate Planning?

Some families want to close digital accounts because they do not want any reminders about the deceased on the Internet. Other families may wish to access and download old photos posted online. Some assets, such as websites, bank accounts, or publishing rights are worth a lot of money, even after the user has passed away.

A few families might want access to personal communications if they suspect foul play with regard to the deceased person's death or if they want to discover why a loved one committed suicide. Occasionally, the intentions of a loved one with regard to their estate may also be revealed in their digital assets if there is a dispute over their last will and testament. Identity theft after a loved one has passed away may also be an issue.

Very often, the only person who knows the passwords necessary to access the digital property is the decedent. Many tech companies refuse to share passwords without a court order, even after the user has passed away.

Proper digital estate planning can prevent unnecessary trials over missing passwords and inaccessible accounts.

How Can I Manage My Digital Estate?

You can write in your will how you want your digital assets disposed. Avoid putting passwords and login information in your will though because wills become public documents after they enter probate.

If you want to give your estate executor access to your digital assets without going through the tech companies, you should write down all the financial websites you use, the login information, and the passwords on a separate document and refer to that document in your will.

However, if the company refuses to allow users to share passwords, the account may be subject to closure without a court order. In a few states though, giving the passwords to an official representative will be exempt from such policies.

Alternatively, you can set up a Digital Asset Protection Trust (DAP Trust) and appoint a trustee to manage your digital estate, even after you have passed away.

How Do Tech Companies Handle Accounts After a User Has Passed Away?

Tech companies differ in how they treat accounts of deceased users. For example:

Are There Any State Laws Regarding Digital Estate Planning?

There are few laws regarding digital estate planning. Although there are no federal laws that directly address digital estate planning, any digital access by anyone other than the user must abide by the Stored Communications Act of 1986, which makes accessing another person’s digital accounts very difficult.

A handful of states have passed laws to help determine what happens to digital assets after death:

Do I Need an Attorney to Protect My Digital Estate?

Digital estate law is a new concept in estate planning that most people will not have experience in. If you would like assistance in making a will you should contact an estate attorney. Your attorney will be able to listen to your goals for your estate when you die, and help you develop a will to meet those goals.

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