Electrons and pieces of magnetic stuff are replacing the usual asset. In the electronic realm, you are constantly generating assets: emails, tweets, pictures on flickr, short messages on facebook, or videos on youtube.
“Online, we generate a lot of assets, but we don’t think of them as assets,” says Eric Goldman, a professor of law and director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law in California. “We don’t manage them as assets. We create content. We create data. We develop relationships. All of those things are valuable, but we don’t manage them as valuable assets.”
The ease of creation (and consumption) online is making us create content everyday. But the tools we are using to do so are protecting our privacy with passwords ; our signatures are replaced by puny text strings that we have to remember each time we are using a different creation medium.
But once you pass away, who will be able to receive your electronic assets if they don’t have the key??
“Most people understand the need to protect, and assign, their assets after their death. They know who will care for their children or pets, who will receive the family heirloom brooch, and who will inherit their financial assets. In this day and age, however, there is a new category of assets to consider: digital assets.”
It’s 2013 – do you know what your digital assets are? And more importantly: do you know what will happen to your Facebook page, online bank account, cloud storage of childhood photos, etc. when you’re gone?
How to plan for the transfer of your digital property? The first step is figuring out what you’ve got:
“Do you have electronic property that has value? ‘Value’ is a subjective question. It may mean monetary value. However, it can also mean sentimental value. Electronic accounts that contain information of a personal or sensitive nature may also be ‘valuable’ to the extent that it is vital to you to either prohibit or restrict access to such information on your death.”
Then follow these three rules of thumb to incorporate digital assets into your estate plan:
1. Make your wishes known:
“[A] plan might include a comprehensive inventory of such assets, and the relevant login credentials. It would also document your wishes with respect to specific assets, and explore the logistics by which your Executor can secure such assets and fulfill your wishes. For example, you may wish to instruct your Executor to delete your email accounts without reading or publishing the contents, or direct your Executor to access your Facebook account and obtain a download of all of the account contents for the interest and records of your family (currently Facebook accounts cannot be continued on death of the holder).”
2. Don’t force your heirs to rely on an incomplete paper trail:
“… consider the number of accounts you may have for which you have no paper records. As we become more environmentally friendly and try to eliminate paper, we are often eliminating many important records which were once accessible. Would your personal representative know of online banking accounts for which you don’t have a debit card or checks (ie, no paper evidence)?”
3. Consider outsourcing management of your passwords:
“In recent years, several companies have established Web-based services that store user names, passwords and other digital assets and make them available to your loved ones according to your instructions. For example, a service might release your information after two or more trusted ‘verifiers’ confirm that you’ve died or become incapacitated.”
The so called GenY has been growing in a different age than their parents. The digital realm has taken over some aspects in everyday life, and that’s something we will have to live with.
We previously had photo albums, scrapbooks, handwritten journals and letters, pieces of ribbon and shoeboxes to rule them all. If you wanted to get back in time, you just had to open these shoeboxes, carefully hidden in the basement or stored in the closet behind a pile of blankets.
Today, we do have dvd of photos, social media accounts, Facebook statuses and emails ; even the diplomas you are getting from your online courses are PDFs, not pieces of paper framed and proudly displayed behind your desk. Cyberspace is getting a hold on these precious memories. And that may be an issue in terms of memories and privacy.
Most of our online accounts are locked behind passwords, and without proper guidance, memories may arise once again when you would have liked them to disappear, or those precious memories, photos or videos that you had with a love one may be deleted from cyberspace. That’s why you should take action right now, read more on the howtos, and prepare a list of your legacy, with proper instructions and beneficiaries !
Meet Courtney.* She represents the average family caregiver: 34 years old, a full-time nurse, mother to a pre-teen daughter, with a half-brother who lives several states away and a younger brother in the military. Like many Americans, she lives on-line, utilizing at least 25 password-protected sites on different computers and a smart phone, where she stores and shares the vulnerable, mundane, and whimsical in her life while connecting to family and friends. Before her mother’s illness, she had thought little of her own digital assets, let alone those of anyone else. When she joined the one-third of the US population who provides care for an ill, disabled, or aged person — two thirds of whom are women, shepherding her terminally ill mother’s online presence in life and after her death became very important. We use Courtney’s story to give us a glimpse into the questions, tasks, unexpected dilemmas, and benefits that await us in caring and grieving in the digital age.
The news that her 58-year-old mother faced terminal cancer shocked Courtney and propelled her into caregiving action. Drawing on her nursing background and love of organization, Courtney created spreadsheets to track her mother’s medications and the signs and symptoms of her disease. She and her mother searched disease progression and treatment options on-line, making lists of questions for her doctors and finding support groups. Courtney also began a private blog, tracing her mother’s stays in the hospital, and she treasures pictures stored on her phone of her mother’s last Halloween, hospitalized but still trick-or-treating at the nurses’ station.
As her mother’s condition declined, Courtney realized that her own comfort level with sharing her personal story through digital media and her mother’s were different, and her mother’s wishes took precedent over her own. For example, she considered using a caregiving site likeCaringBridge to help her mobilize support, but her mother’s wishes for a high level of privacy during her illness meant private e-mail messages and texting were best. Before her mother’s illness, Courtney shared her life’s ups and downs regularly on Facebook and Twitter, but now she tried to follow general digital etiquette advice as best she could, speaking only from her perspective as a daughter, refraining from telling her mother’s story without her permission. Most of the time, though, she found herself too exhausted to share anything and used Facebook to unwind, living vicariously through the pictures, status updates, and tweets of her friends.
Courtney soon realized that she did not know what digital accounts her mother had, let alone what she would want done with them in the future. On one of her mother’s stronger days, they sat down to begin sorting through her digital life together. Clicking through her mother’s Shutterfly, Pinterest, ITunes and Facebook accounts became an opportunity for reminiscing. Because most digital accounts are non-transferrable, they decided what material needed to be saved to her computer’s hard drive, which accounts to close, and which accounts to leave active, like her Facebook page which she still enjoyed using to keep up on her distant grandkids and childhood friends.
Because of her mother’s wishes for privacy, Courtney was surprised when her phone began buzzing non-stop soon after her mother died:
It was weird, because I’d only told a few people that she was dying. I learned that a family friend had been posting detailed updates about my mother’s last moments, and never checked with us about whether we wanted privacy and time. I was very hurt by that. I just felt like the world needed to stop.
Upset that her brothers might learn of their mom’s death on Facebook and not from their sister, she called them immediately. For several days, Courtney tried logging in to her social media accounts, but seeing her mother referred to in the past tense overwhelmed her. She wanted to scream to her well-meaning friends, “I am not ready for my mother to be a “was” yet!” Courtney turned off her phone and asked her best friend to become her family’s informal digital proxy by posting updates from the family on Courtney’s Facebook page, including logistical information about the funeral service and burial. In turn, her friend shared with Courtney the many appreciative comments about her mother’s life from social media sites and from the on-line guest book for her mother’s obituary.
Inevitably, time passed, and Courtney began the long journey of grief, incorporating the death of her mother into her own life story, gaining narrative resilience word by word, click by click. Through Facebook, she gained access to memories and stories from the geographically dispersed group of her mom’s friends, even learning from them how much her mom appreciated the sacrifices she had made to care for her. She still views her mom’s Pinterest board, savoring those unique ideas and dreams. Courtney and her brothers have committed to weekly Skype dates, where they check in and stay connected as they each grieve their mom in their own ways. They have already taken the step of memorializing their mother’s Facebook page, mostly to have closure and to ensure her privacy will be protected.
Courtney’s story reminds us that even if we personally plan for the management and bequeathal of our digital assets and story, a trusted loved one will be the one to carry out our wishes. Some families could benefit from legal counsel, but much can be done informally, as we saw with Courtney’s family. The critical first step is recognizing how digital assets can both provide support and — paradoxically — overwhelm without careful management. The next step is deciding how best to use those assets.
Like Courtney, daughters will most likely be the ones to initiate the conversation, but not all of us will have the luxury of time and ability to talk about what we wish. The time to plan for our digital legacy, both assets and story, is now. Far surpassing any monetary value, our digital narrative assets hold tremendous sentimental value for those who will find comfort and meaning from our cloud of digital witnesses.
*Courtney’s name has been changed to protect her privacy. She represents one of the Gen X interview cohort interviewed by Amy Ziettlow and Elizabeth Marquardt for a forthcoming book on 21st century caregiving and grief.
6 year old Jennifer Atkins was just like any other teenager; she liked to use email, faceebook, twitter, tumblr, and blog. She was taking the fullest advantage of the digital age. What set Jennifer apart from other teenage girls was that she was battling a hard war against a disease since she was 12. Jennifer not only discussed her life as a cancer patient – the triumphs, defeats, but also tried to be a normal teenager interacting with friends and family over the internet. The story of Jennifer does not end happily as she passed away in November.
With her passing left her family with much sorrow and anguish, but they tried to move forward and find relief from Jennifer herself. The family had hired a computer expert to use Jennifer’s laptop to find all her passwords so they could relive the life of their family member. Once the computer expert had successfully gotten access to the computer and passwords Jennifer is family began exploring their loved one is life. They found poems, inspirational messages and even some deep and disturbing information. Yet for the family this was more peaceful and a way to never let go of their loved one. Unfortunately for Jennifer is family the networks that Jennifer had used to communicate and leave the messages they read began to catch wind of what they were doing. Thus beginning the slow process of shutting down Jennifer is accounts, and killing any memories of Jennifer that the family had left.
The issue, sites such as facebook, tumblr, twitter, yahoo, and blog sites had issues with what the family was doing as it went against their terms of services. These sites are very conscious of what new and prospective users might think. If new users thought that these sites could give families access to personal files they may shy away. This might be especially true to people who are estranged from their family. Facebook does give you the option to close accounts down or turn a decease person is page into a memory page (as long as no one logs into the person is account). Yahoo on the other hand will terminate and delete files in their new term user agreement – anyone signing up for yahoo agrees that once dead their account will be deleted.
It is this corporate need to stay protected that caused Jennifer’s family to lose the remaining memories of their daughter. No matter what Jennifer might have wanted, could not matter because the terms of services now days are focused to stop anyone, including families from getting access. Jennifer is family may never getting to know her daughters final thoughts beyond what they had little time to read. This just goes to leave the question, do you have access to your own digital legacy when you sign up for third party sites and are you ready to lose it all and leave nothing for your family if you die?