"We used to talk every day but she hasn’t been online for a long time. I’m worried she got Covid and died," Humberto said, aimlessly scouring for clues about a friend he had only known on the internet. This time, the subject came up after the 30-year-old from Mexico […]
It is critical to assess the value of digital records and assets, and to make sure they are integrated into succession plans.
By Sarah Z. Collins
We now live a big part of our lives online. In the digital world, people meet, shop, interact, bank and save. The cloud is also where many of us store the visual and written memories of our lives.
It is important to see all this rich digital footprint as part of our legacy and to integrate it into our succession plans. Especially now, with the perspective and time gained during the COVID-19 crisis, we have the perfect opportunity to assess the value of our digital records and assets, and the potential for financial or sentimental loss if these digital assets become inaccessible.
What is a “digital asset”?
Digital assets include any online account or service protected by log-in security, such as identification and password. This includes services and tools you might use every day, like your phone and computer, email, social media, photos and videos, music playlists and various subscriptions.
But there are also other assets you might not think about until you need them, such as medical records, files stored on “cloud accounts,” any web domains you own, and online payment systems such as PayPal, Venmo and QuickPay. Online financial accounts are, of course, digital assets.
Does this scenario sounds familiar? You saw an ad sometime ago for an online high-yield savings account that offered a sign-up bonus. Your savings account paid very little interest, so you opened the new account online and transferred the money from the old one. Account statements and transactions for the new digital account were only accessible online. Forgetting about it was easy. You might not even have mentioned it to anyone in your family.
The question is—if something happened to you, who would know about this account? How would your beneficiaries access the funds deposited there?
What should you be doing? Here, we offer four simple steps to clean up your digital closet and keep it in order:
1) Take an inventory
Make a list of all your digital assets mentioned above and any others you can think of. In one secure place, keep a record of the names of each account, digital location and the information needed to gain access to them, such as usernames and passwords.
Let at least one trusted person know how to access your inventory. It could be your accountant, lawyer, or spouse. One effective way of providing access and keeping your accounts organized is by using and sharing a reputable online password manager that uses encryption and stores all your passwords in one place.
With financial accounts, review each by its title and make sure that beneficiaries are named. Most digital accounts, just like traditional financial accounts, allow you to name one or more beneficiaries. Joint accounts typically pass automatically to the survivor under local law.
Two useful account designations to apply are “Transfer on Death” (TOD) and “Payable on Death” (POD). These terms may ease the transition of assets and save inconvenience and unnecessary cost to your beneficiaries. Instead of using an account designation, you might also discuss with your lawyer whether you would like to put the digital account in the name of your trust or personal holding company.
For any online accounts outside your home country, it is especially important to consider your country’s local laws and any potential conflict of law. Knowing how accounts should be titled and what may happen to your assets when you can no longer manage them is an important topic to discuss with your tax advisor or lawyer.
2) Name your trusted contact person
Consider naming a trusted contact person for every one of your online financial accounts. Most online financial accounts allow you to name a trusted contact person (TCP), someone you authorize your bank or brokerage firm to contact if they believe your account may be exposed to possible financial exploitation or fraud, or if they cannot get in touch with you. Naming a TCP when you set up or review your accounts can help protect your digital assets down the road.
3) Make sure your legal documents address your digital assets and give your executor proper access
If you do not account for your digital assets in your succession plan, your heirs may not be granted access or they might have to incur inconvenience and costs to gain that access.
Lack of proper legal planning for online financial assets also could create liabilities for estate or inheritance taxes. Online financial accounts may generate income or losses that need to be woven into your overall wealth plan.
Consult your lawyer about the language that should be included in your testament or trust.
4) Always be planning
In the digital age, we are constantly creating new accounts and changing the passwords on existing ones.
Be sure to keep an ongoing record of your online presence and stay in touch with your lawyer and your J.P. Morgan advisor when you open new accounts that could affect not only your current financial status, but also your family’s future.
Digital Experts: Top Ten Guidelines On Death In A Digital World
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Two digital experts, one focused on behavior and the other on technology and law, agree—it’s time for guidelines on digital death, from Directive Communication Systems.
“We are still in the Wild West of the digital age, so people don’t know that what they’re doing can be harmful. Well-meaning people don’t know they can innocently stir up emotions, cause others to lose financial and sentimental property and even encourage fraud. “
A mother is told to go to the hospital after learning that her son has been in a bad car crash. When she arrives, the waiting area is filled with somber high school students. They knew about the crash before she did.
Two digital experts, one focused on behavior and the other on technology and law, agree—it’s time for guidelines on digital death.
Lee Poskanzer, founder of Directive Communication Systems and Dr. Carla Sofka, Professor of Social Work at Siena College and co-editor of “Dying, Death and Grief in an Online Universe,” offer ten tips on grief and loss for the digital world:
1 – Think before you tweet, post or pin. If it’s not your spouse or partner, your parent or your child, a death is not your story to share. This is about privacy and personal ownership. Digital users expect to share news as it happens, but death notification is a private matter.
2 – Don’t sensationalize another person’s tragedy. Sharing grim details can be disturbing and painful. Images and recordings should not be posted without the express permission of the family.
3 – Find out what the family’s wishes are before posting anything. It’s important to know what the family wants to share and what they would prefer to keep out of the public eye.
4— Be alert for fraud and tell the family if you see something online that does not seem right. Death notices are often the starting point for identity theft. Keep an eye out for impersonation of the deceased in profile posts and report them to the authorities immediately.
5 – Don’t contact social media platforms about someone else’s death. Contacting websites’ Customer Service can create significant and irreversible problems. Data, photos, cryptocurrency and emails can be permanently locked out and/or destroyed when well-meaning individuals contact digital platforms.
6 – Don’t dismiss the positive use of social media. Digital users, particularly teens, turn to social media for immediate emotional support from their online communities. By connecting with others, they feel less isolated. Try to be understanding if someone’s style of grieving is more public than yours.
7 – Accept strangers who post respectfully—they are part of the grieving community. Dr. Sofka has coined the term “experiential empathy” to describe people who are strangers to a family or a community but connect with them online because they have a shared loss.
8– Be thoughtful when sharing your message of grief and support. Be authentic and sincere. A short message that will remind others of what the person meant to you will be appreciated.
9 – Acts of kindness are always welcome. IRL (In Real Life) or online, it’s hard to go wrong when you are showing support, sharing grief and memories.
10 – Take proactive steps to protect your own family and your own digital assets for the unexpected. Speak with family members about your own wishes, regardless of your age or health. Look into what is most effective for accomplishing your goals. Create a plan for managing your digital assets after your death, including how you want your family to share the news of your passing. Note that password sharing is a violation of the Terms of Service Agreement with website owners, and could result in the loss of digital assets, including photos, videos, emails, digital artifacts, cryptocurrency and more. Consider using 3rd party services and experts in digital asset directives management to handle these personal and private matters.
Directive Communication Systems (DCS) is the market- leading guardian of digital assets. We serve estate professionals and individuals planning their estates, loved ones left behind, fiduciaries and website owners. DCS is the only digital asset and directives service to meet requirements of federal and state laws and website Terms of Service Agreements. Visit us at http://www.directivecommunications.com, Linked In, Twitter @directivecomms.
Dr. Carla Sofka is a professor of social work at Siena College in Loudonville, NY. Prior to her academic career, Dr. Sofka was a clinical social worker who worked in geriatric, medical, psychiatric, and hospice settings. She writes and teaches about the impact of technology on how society learns about and copes with life-threatening illness, death, and grief. She is a frequent speaker at conferences and conducts workshops, webinars, and podcasts. In addition to contributions to numerous journal articles and book chapters, she is a past-president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling.