Online Life After Death – Digital Asset Estate Planning

Online Life After Death – Digital Asset Estate Planning

Most of us have a significant presence in the digital world whether we realize it or not.

If you were to list all your digital accounts and assets, the number would probably surprise you. You may have online accounts with banks, merchants, a brokerage firm, social media platforms, cloud storage companies, gaming sites and email providers. Perhaps you have a blog or own a number of domain names. Some items such as your digital photo collection or your Facebook log may not have a monetary value, but they may have personal meaning for your loved ones. Other items may range in value from coupon credits accrued with your favorite online retailer to a significant balance in a PayPal or even Bitcoin account. You may have thousands of frequent flyer miles, a cash-back reward balance from your credit card company, or an online trading account balance. Your online business presence may include eBay, Etsy or your own web-based company.

Whatever monetary or personal value these types of examples may possess, digital asset estate planning is essential to ensure that your online life after death is handled in an orderly manner according to your wishes.

In addition to online accounts and assets, your personal digital devices and their content should be considered as well.

Your computer or laptop as well as your tablet, e-reader, cellphone or smartphone and all manner of offline storage form part of your digital estate. These storage formats include CDs and DVDs, peripheral storage drives, and memory cards. Tangible paper records are becoming increasingly a thing of the past; for most of us, it is the digital trail we leave that tells the story of our personal, professional and financial lives.

The conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, an icon of 20th-century classical music, passed away in 1990 and left behind a memoir called Blue Ink in a password-protected computer file. He did not share the password, and so far, no one has been able to access this presumably significant work. Clarifying your wishes regarding your digital legacy is crucial to any well-formulated estate plan. You can start by providing your executor a complete digital inventory together with the necessary means of accessing it.

Digital Assets – A New Frontier

There’s more to consider, however. From a legal perspective, the status of digital assets within estate planning is a new frontier. They may fall within intellectual property, intangible assets or license categories.    While it may seem reasonable to assume that a next-of-kin could simply step in and manage or dispose of digital accounts, this is a risky endeavor. Federal and state laws designed to prevent hacking, identity theft and online fraud can inadvertently prevent loved ones or your executor from legally accessing your digital assets if you die. Many sites and account issuers allow only the primary account holder to enjoy access and can be inflexible on that point.

In Ellsworth vs. Yahoo, a 2005 legal case out of Michigan, the father of a Marine killed in Iraq was forced to seek access through the courts to his son’s Yahoo email account after Yahoo initially refused to provide it. Yahoo eventually complied with an order to produce the email records.

While the need for a court order is extreme, some platforms such as Gmail, Flickr and Twitter request a death certificate and related documents to gain access to accounts and records. Some states such as Oklahoma and Connecticut have introduced statutes designed to provide access to the deceased person’s email and social networking accounts, but comprehensive digital asset protection and disposition after death remains a complicated matter best discussed with your estate attorney.

As stated, the goal will be to identify a complete inventory, directions for access and any information necessary for your digital assets to be valued accurately. You may prefer that some records be destroyed and the accounts closed upon your death while others be willed to specific individuals. You may wish to bequeath your laptop to one person but prefer the contents be destroyed or given to a different heir. The importance of specifying your exact wishes is not to be underestimated. Our digital lives have grown and will continue to grow exponentially, and the peace of mind that estate planning affords will remain elusive until you include your digital assets in this important endeavor.

Digital Files After Death, What Happens to Your Digital Legacy?

how to manage the digital legacy of the departed

In April, Google added to its services an Inactive Account Manager, which lets you designate an heir who will control your Google data when you die. You choose a length of inactivity, and if your accounts are ever quiet for that long, Google will notify your heirs that they’ve inherited access to your Gmail correspondence, YouTube videos or Picasa photo albums — whatever you specify.

It’s about time that Internet giants get in front of the privacy issue and offer users options for dealing with a digital legacy. After all, we live in an age where an increasing number of people make and share materials that live only in the digital world — nearly 50 percent of adult Internet users, for example, post homemade photos or videos online. A number of services can help with digital estate planning by designating password recipients or deleting accounts or files when you die. But communication and privacy laws have yet to catch up with technology. WhileFacebook made it possible for family members to convert the page of a loved one into a memorial a few years ago, the company has faced multiple lawsuits from family members who wanted deeper access to their kids’ Facebook accounts after a sudden death.

Clearly it’s important for people to consider who will have access and control over their digital data when the time comes. But this focus on privacy and access ignores the emotional significance of a loved one’s digital legacy.

“Right now the contemporary discussion is privacy and utility,” says Will Odom of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “It’s not about how digital materials will be represented in any meaningful way.”

Think about how we interact with material heirlooms, items that are often deeply symbolic and sentimental. Your great-grandfather’s watch, an old photo album or stack of letters might be kept in special box on a high shelf or tucked in a particular drawer. We safeguard these items not just to remember the individual, but so future generations will know and remember too. And when the living ache to connect to the dead, it’s often in a ritualized setting: Letters might be read in a favorite chair with a glass of wine and a box of tissues. Photo albums are pulled out during holidays. We keep our relationships with lost loved ones alive by keeping their things.

Digital possessions — be they e-mails, texts, photos or tweets — are fundamentally different than tangible goods, says Odom, who has been investigating bereavement in the digital age. This makes digital materials particularly challenging to deal with after death. For one thing, there’s a matter of scale. Your house or apartment can contain only so many objects. People continuously get rid of tangible things as they acquire new ones, keeping only what’s important. But digital objects are spaceless. You don’t have to purge even if your inbox is bloated with thousands of unread e-mails. So it’s easy to end up with orders of magnitude more digital things than tangible ones. Digital objects are also oddly removed from view. While you can discern with a glance that the stacks of ancient National Geographic magazines in your parent’s attic are indeed stacks of ancient National Geographic magazines, you can’t tell what’s on a laptop and whether you want to keep that content just by looking at the laptop. This makes it especially difficult to make decisions about digital heirlooms.

“People end up in a weird holding pattern of keeping a phone or a desktop computer,” Odom says. “They want to keep it, but they are too overwhelmed to go into it.”

Recent studies by Odom and colleagues suggest that there may be something fundamental and ancient about how we interact with items left behind by the dead. While there currently aren’t easy ways to curate digital heirlooms, people sure do try. Many of the people the researchers interviewed were enacting similar rituals with digital objects that people use with material ones. One woman had 25 or so cherished text messages from her dead husband. She kept the SIM card and old phone in an ornate box and would take them out and read them from time to time. A woman from England buried her husband with his cell phone and kept sending him texts after he died.

Odom and his colleagues conclude that bereavement in the digital age might be easier if we had devices that allowed us to interact with digital objects in the same ways humans have interacted with heirlooms through the ages. As one woman who didn’t like the idea of storing special digital photos on a CD remarked: “They deserve better than that.”

Based on comments like that one, the researchers have designed three devices that display a deceased person’s photos, tweets and other digital heirlooms on screens embedded in oak veneer boxes. In tests, families said that they would want to keep the devices alongside their cherished physical heirlooms. As one mother put it: “Seeing it age with them — the things we’ll always have — it feels right.”