My dad is one of those people who refuses to touch a computer and loves his old flip-style “dumb” phone. If you’re like my dad, you can probably skip this article. But if you’re someone who uses a computer, smartphone, or any other type of electronic device, please read on.
When thinking about estate planning, it’s easy to overlook your digital life. By addressing this issue now, you can help your family after you’re gone by allowing them to more easily locate contact information for your friends and colleagues, locate and access your online accounts so that they can be closed and any property in them distributed appropriately, and locate any important information (such as family photographs) that you have stored on digital devices.
Putting a plan in place to deal with all of your digital devices and accounts can feel overwhelming. To help make it a bit more manageable, I suggest breaking the task into the following steps: (1) make a list; (2) decide what you want done; (3) choose someone to be in charge; and (4) store this information securely.
Make a list – For most people, this will be the most time-consuming step. One way to attack this is to divide your digital assets into categories. For example, categories could include hardware (like computers, external hard drives, flash/thumb/USB drives, tablets, smartphones, e-readers, digital music players, and digital cameras), online financial accounts (like banking, credit cards, PayPal, frequent flier miles, insurance, retirement plans, stocks, and brokerage accounts), email and social media (like Yahoo, Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn), online storage sites (like iCloud, DropBox, or Flickr), and any websites/URLs or blogs you own or manage. At a minimum, include all user names and passwords. Also, it’s a good idea to list any recurring payments you have set up through your bank accounts or credit cards, like utilities, insurance premiums, tuition, or loans. Be sure to update your list as you add or delete accounts or change passwords.
Decide what you want done – Once you know what your digital assets are, you can decide how you want to deal with them. First, as you make your list, if you find that you have any accounts that you don’t use any more, close or delete them now so your loved ones have less to deal with later. Next, for your online accounts, especially social media, check the policies for each site. Some sites, like Facebook, Google, and Instagram, give you options for how you’d like your account handled after your death. For many other sites, the only option is for someone to contact the site after your death. For digital photos or other electronic files on your devices (like original music or videos, recipes, or letters or stories you’ve written), write a letter of instruction for how these assets should be handled and keep the letter with your will and other estate planning documents.
Choose someone to be in charge – If you have a will (and if you don’t, get one!), you’ve already chosen someone to be in charge of managing your estate after you die. In Indiana, this person is called your personal representative. However, your personal representative might not be digitally savvy (like my dad) and therefore not the best person to handle your digital estate, so you may want to name someone else to deal with your digital assets. Also, although Indiana law gives personal representatives some authority over digital accounts, some companies may be reluctant to deal with anyone unless your will specifically authorizes them to access your accounts.
Store this information securely – There are many different ways that you can securely store information related to your digital assets. For example, there are dozens of “password manager” and “online vault” websites and smartphone apps that will let you store your passwords. Generally how these sites/apps work is that you create one master password for the site/app that then allows you (or your digital personal representative to whom you’ve given your master password) to access your list of other passwords. The websites/apps can vary greatly in regards to features and price (there are some good free ones), so be sure to do your research if you go this route. If you prefer something more traditional, options such as a safe deposit box, home safe, or memory stick could work. Just be sure that your digital personal representative knows where the information is and has access to it. Whatever method you choose, don’t put this information in your will, which will become a publicly accessible document after your death.
As with most estate planning issues, the challenges and complexities of creating a plan for digital assets vary with each person’s individual needs and circumstances. If you haven’t already made a plan for how your digital assets should be handled after your death, consider contacting an estate planning attorney to discuss your situation in detail. It’s never too soon to start planning.
Carrie S. Cloud is an attorney practicing at 146 E US Highway 52, Rushville, Indiana 46173. The information in this article is for general informational purposes only and is not legal advice.