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 […]
Social networks are getting better at dealing with death, while people and companies are building new digital rituals for grieving online. The dead will overrun Facebook. We’ll chat with our ancestors online. Memorials won’t be cut from stone, but carved out in pixels. While the idea of never letting […]
Image: Pexels The accidental “death” of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and millions of other Facebook users is a timely reminder of what happens to our online content once we do pass away. Similar banners populated profiles across the social network. After a few hours of users finding family members, […]
Many of us will accumulate vast libraries of digital books and music over the course of our lifetimes. But when we die, our collections of words and music may expire with us.
Someone who owned 10,000 hardcover books and the same number of vinyl records could bequeath them to descendants, but legal experts say passing on iTunes and Kindle libraries would be much more complicated.
And one’s heirs stand to lose huge sums of money. “I find it hard to imagine a situation where a family would be OK with losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs,” says Evan Carroll, co-author of “Your Digital Afterlife.” “Legally dividing one account among several heirs would also be extremely difficult.”
Part of the problem is that with digital content, one doesn’t have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files — but they don’t actually own them.
Apple AAPL, +0.79% and Amazon.com AMZN, +0.98% grant “nontransferable” rights to use content, so if you buy the complete works of the Beatles on iTunes, you cannot give the “White Album” to your son and “Abbey Road” to your daughter.
“That account is an asset and something of value,” says Deirdre R. Wheatley-Liss, an estate-planning attorney at Fein, Such, Kahn & Shepard in Parsippany, N.J.
But can it be passed on to one’s heirs?
Most digital content exists in a legal black hole. “The law is light years away from catching up with the types of assets we have in the 21st Century,” says Wheatley-Liss. In recent years, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Oklahoma and Idaho passed laws to allow executors and relatives access to email and social networking accounts of those who’ve died, but the regulations don’t cover digital files purchased.
Apple and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.
There are still few legal and practical ways to inherit e-books and digital music, experts say. And at least one lawyer has a plan to capitalize on what may become be a burgeoning market. David Goldman, a lawyer in Jacksonville, says he will next month launch software, DapTrust, to help estate planners create a legal trust for their clients’ online accounts that hold music, e-books and movies. “With traditional estate planning and wills, there’s no way to give the right to someone to access this kind of information after you’re gone,” he says.
Here’s how it works: Goldman will sell his software for $150 directly to estate planners to store and manage digital accounts and passwords. And, while there are other online safe-deposit boxes like AssetLock and ExecutorSource that already do that, Goldman says his software contains instructions to create a legal trust for accounts. “Having access to digital content and having the legal right to use it are two totally different things,” he says.
The simpler alternative is to just use your loved one’s devices and accounts after they’re gone — as long as you have the right passwords.
Chester Jankowski, a New York-based technology consultant, says he’d look for a way to get around the licensing code written into his 15,000 digital files. “Anyone who was tech-savvy could probably find a way to transfer those files onto their computer — without ending up in Guantanamo,” he says. But experts say there should be an easier solution, and a way such content can be transferred to another’s account or divided between several people.“We need to reform and update intellectual-property law,” says Dazza Greenwood, lecturer and researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.
Technology pros say the need for such reform is only going to become more pressing. “A significant portion of our assets is now digital,” Carroll says. U.S. consumers spend nearly $30 on e-books and MP3 files every month, or $360 a year, according to e-commerce company Bango. Apple alone has sold 300 million iPods and 84 million iPads since their launches. Amazon doesn’t release sales figures for the Kindle Fire, but analysts estimate it has nearly a quarter of the U.S. tablet market.
As the social media manager at LACMA, I am deeply entrenched in digital communication both professionally and personally through the various social networks I use on a daily basis. For the most part, I am comfortable with technology, which some might feel wary of or even fear. So when I heard about the Hereafter Institute, I was intrigued and even excited. The thought of a digital afterlife hadn’t really crossed my mind, even though I had witnessed and experienced loss in the past decade, often communicated and memorialized through Facebook and other social media.
To think about my own death and the subsequent decisions my kin would make regarding my online presence would be an eye-opening experience. So I arrived at LACMA on a Sunday afternoon and proceeded to the Bing Theater lobby. I was greeted by a woman in a white lab coat, who escorted me to a desk to check in. The desk was staffed by two more women in lab coats, release forms neatly stacked atop, next to pens and stickers branded with the Hereafter Institute’s infinity loop logo. After filling out the form, I was asked to wait on one of the black leather Barcelona chairs, which formed a U-shaped waiting area surrounding a glass table with a single white orchid. Familiar spaces had been transformed into a more institutionalized setting to fit with the performance.
Another woman in a lab coat escorted me to the Director’s Lounge in the Pavilion for Japanese Art, where she asked me questions about my online presence and told me about the three options for a person’s data when they die: 1) Continuation 2) Deletion 3) Memorialization. There isn’t space to explain each, but if you’re curious, leave a comment, and I’ll go into more detail!
She also informed me that Facebook has a “legacy contact” setting that allows you to designate one of your friends on the network to manage your profile when you pass. She gave me the option to follow along and do it in the moment. With a “no time like the present” attitude, I designated my oldest friend as my digital heir. Facebook allows you to write a personalized message for the notification it sends your heir, so I added the disclaimer that I’d explain later and not to be alarmed.
Next, I was asked to stand on a turntable so they could create a 3D scan of my body (something which I had done before at the Museum of Art and Design in New York—I even have a little figurine of myself to prove it).
My tour guide said they would use the scan to create an animated avatar of me. Once completed, we left the Pavilion for Japanese Art and meandered through the museum’s beautiful bamboo garden and into the Art + Technology Lab.
Here, another woman in a lab coat explained that I would be viewing examples of digital memorials for three different people in virtual reality. I lifted the VR headset over my eyes and she outfitted me with headphones playing calming music. I saw two people memorialized in computer-animated spaces, complete with a voiceover by a loved one describing the person. One had a guitar and was sitting on a couch on a sunny beach, while the other was pacing around her own personal gallery where artworks floated in a room without walls. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder and the headsets were removed.
It was time for the final component of the performance. I must admit I was a little worried that I would be emotionally affected by this part. Two flower arrangements flanked a dark screen. A stranger stood in front of the screen and began talking about me in the past tense, eulogizing, throwing out real facts from my life, including where I grew up, where I went to high school, the places I had worked, and the names of family members.
The screen behind him flickered and cycled through dozens of messages I had written on Facebook in the recent past, and then my avatar walked into the frame, wearing the same black shirt, long gold necklace, jeans, and flip flops I was still in. I watched my digital self turn and walk off into the horizon. The lights went up and I was once again greeted by my guide, who walked me outside and bid me farewell.
I left feeling introspective about the part of myself I share online, and the persona I’ve created that has the potential to live on beyond my physical body. My experience with the Hereafter Institute was sometimes entertaining, sometimes thought-provoking, and even a little eerie. I’m not a morbid person, but I now I think I might like to prepare my digital legacy for when I die.