Digital death is still a problem. A widow’s battle to access her husband’s Apple account

Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog

As I have previously discussed, even people who believe they have a comprehensive estate plan may have overlooked what happens to their digital assets when they die. The idea is to address digital assets in your existing estate plan. Attorney coach, James Lamm, is teaching attorneys how to integrate specifics of digital estate planning.

Many people possess digital assets that may be of great value to them. However, the value of web domains, photos, videos, email, and social-media accounts may be lost if the owner does not take proper legal steps ahead of time. Digital estate planning is more complicated than traditional estate planning because the owner of assets is tasked with making sure to leave access to the heir. However, these sites may be password protected, encrypted, and governed by privacy laws. Lamm suggests some first steps that would help in the digital estate -planning process.

  1. Go through a test run and ask yourself if you were incapacitated today would your loved ones be able to gain access to your digital assets? Who would you want to have access?
  2. Keep a record of all of the things in your digital inventory with the user name and passwords.
  3. Keep a back up of your digital asset information.
  4. Reduce your plan to writing.
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.

Your Digital Legacy Can Live On

Your Digital Legacy Can Live On

I read with interest this week that an estimated 11% of people in the UK are leaving their internet passwords in their will so that their loved ones can access their personal data online.

A survey commissioned by cloud computing company Rackspace concluded that more than a quarter of the 2,000 people asked had digital assets worth more than £200. With photographs, films and videos so easily stored online, they have in many cases replaced the hard copy photo album and DVD. When you lose someone, it makes sense that you’d still want to be able to access those assets rather than leaving them online.

By 2020, a third expect to store all their music online, whilst a quarter anticipated keeping all their photos online. In addition, passwords for sites such as Facebook and Flickr are also being included in wills to ensure that personal data can be protected. It’s a sensible idea given how difficult it can be to get hold of these passwords.

Facebook pages can often become tributes to the person, but can also fall victim to spammers or malicious comments, so bequeathing your passwords can allow those left behind to maintain these pages or close them down.

Only the other day, I was shocked to see Facebook suggesting I might want to be friends with someone who is no longer with us – it’s the decent thing to empower relatives to take these pages down if it’s not appropriate that they’re online any more. I hate to be old school about it, but I’m not sure being left an eBook or Flickr account is quite as precious as the original book or a box of old photos owned by someone you loved!

What are your thoughts?