While individuals will eventually pass on, the internet is forever. Online accounts from games, apps and social media are becoming increasingly valuable. In an age of expanding online presence, estate planners and administrators should take into account the digital life of the client or the decedent, even if online accounts may not always trigger ownership or property issues.
Confronted with the growing problem of how to treat the deaths of account holders, Facebook recently put into place a mechanism by which an account holder may designate a “legacy contact” to administer her or his Facebook account after the account holder’s death. This digital personal representative can then update the profile, write a post on the profile to share a message or information, and change the profile picture and cover photo of the deceased user. Facebook also allows users to give advance directives as to how the account does or does not live on after death. Twitter and LinkedIn have yet to create such simple mechanisms for planning for the digital estate, but account holders should include with relevant estate planning documents the necessary credentials to carry out actions concerning these and other accounts after death. In many instances, these accounts require substantial documentation to end or modify the accounts, with potentially undesirable results.
Digital life also creates tricky problems for finding financial assets, as online accounts can contain assets that clearly fall within the bounds of an estate. For instance, a relatively new app called “Acorns” rounds up purchases from an account holder’s checking and credit accounts to the nearest dollar and deposits those funds in an investment account. These accounts can be tricky to discover. The only proof of the existence of an Acorns account may be in the confirmation email sent to the account holder or the app itself. The estate’s personal representative would then have no knowledge of the existence of the account without first checking the decedent’s smartphone. Ongoing eBay auctions may commit the estate to sell certain assets, while PayPal may hold a balance to liquidate. Other types of accounts, such as World of WarCraft accounts or property held in virtual worlds such as Second Life, may have real market value that should be included in the estate. World of WarCraft and Second Life are analogous to video games, except the protagonist is unique to the user and can learn skills, create products, work jobs or even own property in a virtual setting. These two online platforms allow users to interact with players from around the world and build value in their characters or properties that holds true dollar value for the estate. For instance, one World of Warcraft player in 2007 sold a valuable character for roughly $9,500.
Estate planning and administration should take the testator’s digital life into account for planning purposes. As more individuals spend their time online, the assets that they create there will have to find a secure place within a plan for the future or risk floating in the internet ether for a digital eternity. Does your estate plan adequately cover your online assets? Will your family be able to adequately memorialize you in the digital realm?