What happens to a person’s Facebook account when he or she passes away? What about the photos you share on social media, the documents you’ve stored in the cloud, your texts to family and friends? While the law is clear about how to handle physical property when a person dies, it is only now beginning to address the management of digital assets. An article in The Conversation discusses this issue. Here are some of the highlights.
While many legal issues surrounding digital assets remain undecided, people should still consider including them in their estate planning. Access to a decedent’s email is an important consideration. Such messages can be highly personal in nature. What is more, bank accounts, utilities and other accounts may be linked to certain email addresses and messages. Access to this information can help administer a decedent’s estate. Meanwhile, limiting who can access it can protect the privacy of the decedent as well as his or family and friends.
So, what planning steps can you take? First, state in writing what you want to happen to your digital assets. List all the accounts in your name, then determine which accounts you want your executor to access and which accounts you want to be deleted.
It is important to note that your usernames and passwords should not be listed in your will. Wills become public documents when a person passes away. Instead, keep your access information in a safe place, such as secured password management software. Make sure you leave instructions to your executor about where and how to find them.
What about e-books, iTunes and other digital assets?
Digital assets like these are ultimately controlled by the provider’s End User License Agreement (EULA). If you’ve actually read your iTunes or Kindle EULA, then you know just how little control you have over your music and e-books. When you hit Kindle’s “Buy” button, for example, you are not really buying the e-book, you are licensing it for your personal use. In essence, your e-books and iTunes are not legally yours so you can’t pass them on to heirs. The law has simply not caught up with the fact that perhaps you have thousands of dollars in digital books and music and would like to leave them to a loved one when you die. For now, the only solution may be to leave your executor instructions on how to access your accounts and then back up your media on external hard drives.
With some planning, you can make it easier for your heirs to manage your digital estate and protect both your privacy and theirs. Given that some of your digital assets are today’s version of shoeboxes containing photographs, letters and other personal mementos, digital estate planning can help preserve your legacy.
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