Post By George in Estate Administration
There are three areas of digital estate planning:
The first area is online assets that have financial value.
For example, a brokerage account that is only accessible online; an online bank account; an eBay account; or a sales account from a business where the value of it is only accessible online. Where there’s a financial value – something that can be measured readily in dollars – then that obviously has a value, and the executor or administrator would have a duty to collect it.
Most people can readily understand this aspect of planning, and it’s the easiest category. A good planner should ask, “So, do you have any money or securities or property that you can access only through the internet?”
The second broad category are items that may have tremendous emotional value, without any financial value.
The best example of this would be photographs. Whether through Facebook or Instagram or photo-specific archive sites, people have electronic assets in the form of images and videos that may not have any dollar value, but could have an exceptionally significant emotional or legacy value.
A person doing their estate planning may have specific wishes about such property – not only who gets what, but whether some of it should be destroyed and how it should be handled. You can certainly imagine someone having specific ideas about who has access to the photos, or leaving a specific instruction that some should be accessible and others not.
Conversely, in a decedent’s estate, just because there’s no financial value doesn’t mean that an executor or administrator doesn’t need to worry about electronic property! If it exists as an asset, then it’s potentially property that belongs in the estate, which means that a beneficiary could potentially demand to receive it.
A third aspect of digital planning, which is distinct from the other two, is what I’m calling the process value or the administration value.
There’s a finality in closure. By this I mean the idea that the executor has a duty to not only find online property and distribute it, but also to resolve, shut down and close out online accounts, whether email accounts or some other kind of online presence. Just as an executor has a duty to return an apartment to the landlord, the executor theoretically – and the law is evolving on this – has a duty to deal with the online accounts.
A close-to-home example: my mother died recently, so imagine my surprise when I received an email from her saying that she had traveled to London and lost her passport, and I should wire her money so she could get back safely. Spam is always annoying, but never moreso than when it comes from your dead mother!
Thorough and thoughtful estate planning means planning for all assets, including so-called digital assets. Similarly, in an estate, an executor or administrator wants to be mindful of marshaling and managing not only real and tangible property, but also electronic/digital/online assets and rights.