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Online Asset ePlan
Web sites, email, social media, online accounts and smartphones – we are surrounded by media. Many Americans have 30 to 80 online accounts with passwords. These may include accounts to purchase various items, email accounts, financial accounts and social media.
Most banking and financial services accounts include online banking and access to investment funds. An added benefit of online banking is that many charities now are experiencing significant growth in online giving.
As smartphones become more powerful, users are accessing all of these accounts through various “apps.” There also are large numbers of smartphone users who now have chosen Apple Pay or other methods of using their phone rather than a credit card to make payments.
With this growth of media, online accounts and passwords, you need an “ePlan” to manage digital assets in your estate. This “ePlan” should cover the different types of assets, plan for storage of electronic information, empower your executor to manage the account and give appropriate digital directions.
1. Compile a List of eAssets and How to Access Them
There are four major types of electronic assets in your estate. The first part of an ePlan is to gather information about your electronic assets and make it available to your executor. Electronic assets typically are personal, financial, business and social media. Your list should specify the login name and password for each digital account. Because passwords change, a regular schedule for updating the list is important.
First, personal electronic assets include photos, videos and music. These assets will often be saved in directories on your hard drive. However, because it is common to upgrade a computer periodically, some individuals create a backup of the photos and videos on CDs, DVDs, memory drives or internet storage accounts.
Personal electronic assets also include your email accounts and iTunes or other music collections. Email accounts on Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail and other plans may include thousands of messages. If you desire to retain this data, it is useful to back up the email accounts and store those with other electronic records. Because most internet service providers will delete an account if it is inactive for a period of time (such as six to nine months), the majority of email messages will be lost unless you have made plans to archive them.
Second, financial records are quickly moving online. Most computer users now use online banking to make automatic payments. They also access their retirement and investment accounts through the internet. You also may have financial accounts with Amazon, PayPal, eBay, airlines and other vendors.
With the growing popularity of Bitcoin, it is possible to have substantial value in a digital currency account. Because the password is essential to recovering the account value, your Bitcoin and other passwords will need to be available to your digital executor.
Third, business electronic assets include intellectual property that you may have in websites, the uniform resource locators (URLs) or web addresses that you own and any software you have developed. Business assets may have very substantial value. If you have business assets, it will be important for you to discuss the type of asset and arrangements for its future use with your attorney.
The fourth general category of electronic assets is social media. You may have a Facebook account, a Twitter account, LinkedIn connections, YouTube videos or a series of blog posts. All of these types of social media may have sufficient value that your estate will want to retain the asset.
2. Store and Protect Your Information
Because your ePlan contains account names and passwords, security is essential. You do not want the list to be in your will or living trust. It needs to be saved in a secure location. If there is potential family conflict over an estate, this list also should not be accessible to most family members. Most individuals will find that saving a secure list of eAssets and passwords in a location available to their digital executor is the best solution.
There are several options for maintaining electronic information. A fairly straightforward plan is to copy your electronic information (pictures, videos, music and archived email) to memory drives or DVDs. These may then be stored in a home safe or safety deposit box. Since in some states a safety deposit box is sealed when the owner passes away, the list of electronic assets and passwords will usually be saved in a home safe or other location.
Because much of your electronic information is on external websites, your digital executor will need passwords and account names. There are several options for handling this key information. The low-technology solution is to write down the passwords and account names and keep the record in your home safe. An electronic option is to maintain this information on a spreadsheet or other electronic software and store it on a memory drive. Because the passwords are designed to be protected and security is important, it is best if these files are not backed up on your computer hard drive. Any information on a hard drive could potentially be disclosed to third parties. With a USB memory drive, the spreadsheet is updated only when the drive is inserted into a USB port. Only the memory drive is permitted to store the spreadsheet.
A third option is to use one of the available password protection programs. If you have a reasonable level of confidence in the internet and the various encryption methods, a password program is a viable solution. Several iPhone password programs use the Apple iCloud System to share the passwords between an iPhone and an iPad. While this requires confidence in the encryption technology to protect the password on both the device and in the cloud, this method provides redundancy in the maintenance of the various passwords. It also protects and updates the information by using both an iPhone and an iPad. The digital executor needs access to just one of the two devices to carry out your ePlan.
Of course, your executor or designated person will need to have the iPhone or iPad access password and the secure software program password to access the account. Because many individuals have 30 to 80 different accounts and passwords, using iPhone password software with appropriate encryption is a fairly attractive solution.
3. Select Your Digital Executor
After you have written down the various electronic assets and determined the appropriate storage methods, it will be necessary to consider the actions of your digital executor. First, your estate planning documents should name that person and authorize the executor to have access to your digital accounts. For some accounts, such as Bitcoin, the executor also must have the password in order to access the account. Other online accounts may be accessible to the executor if he or she has the appropriate authorization in the estate plan and, in some cases, from the probate judge.
A Uniform Law Commission has produced suggested legislation with the title, “Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA).” This act grants the executor and other fiduciaries the right to have access to your digital assets. Because many states have given access to only part of your digital assets, it is important for your estate plan to grant access powers to the executor and for your strategy to make the passwords available.
4. Write Digital Directions
Finally, you should write a letter to your executor with suggested actions to manage your digital assets. Because technology and the policies of financial and social media companies are continually changing, these proposed actions are likely to be recommendations rather than mandatory steps.
Your letter may recommend the distribution of various information to family members. Because digital items such as photos and videos may easily be duplicated, you may ask your executor to share copies of those with family members. You also may explain your proposed management of various social media accounts.
Your financial accounts will initially be controlled by your executor. After account assets are transferred to the recipients, they will be placed in accounts in the name of the new owner and your financial institution will close your account.
Digital Executor Actions After You Pass Away
While internal policies for the various digital media providers are rapidly changing, several of them recognize that some of their users are passing away each week. Therefore, there are specific arrangements to handle the accounts of deceased users. The policies described below may change – digital executors should check with each company and review its latest terms of service.
Facebook permits a user to select a “Legacy Contact.” If your Legacy Contact is a Facebook member and a friend of the decedent, he or she is permitted to use your password to manage your account (with limited rights). Normally, most accounts are closed by the legacy contact. However, some individuals wish to permit their account to remain open to record the events of their lifetime.
Twitter requires several steps to deactivate an account. The executor sends a death certificate, a notarized letter and a copy of the obituary to Twitter. Yahoo follows similar procedures and will not grant access to sent or received emails.
Google has created an “Inactive Account Manager” option. On your Google account, you may decide to hold open the different accounts for three to 12 months after your demise. During this time, your Inactive Account Manager may be empowered to control your Google Drive, Gmail, YouTube and Picasa Web Albums. Therefore, all of the various services that are provided by Google can be managed by the one designated person. If there is no activity for the designated time, Google will notify the persons you select to assume management of the account.
Microsoft requires a death certificate, proof of kinship or power of attorney and a valid identity card. If the digital executor qualifies, he or she may manage your Microsoft accounts. If the account is inactive for one year, it is deleted.
Apple iCloud users agree that account rights terminate upon death. Most Apple media files are accessed through their servers and user rights to eBooks, movies, iTunes and other media will lapse. Amazon has a similar policy for Kindle eBooks. The content is leased and rights terminate when the user passes away.
Protecting Your Online Assets
Digital estate planning is a new and rapidly changing field. However, you may take specific actions to protect online assets and enable your digital executor to manage these accounts. By listing all of the various assets, providing a secure method for those assets to be archived, ensuring that your executor has access to the appropriate passwords and account names and granting authority to your representative to manage eAssets, you can protect digital assets. These valuable and personal accounts may then be a meaningful gift to your heirs.