Planning for “digital assets” has become necessary as the use of the internet and other digital means to create, store and manage information and assets has become commonplace. Although the definition of “digital assets” is constantly expanding, the term generally encompasses all of an individual’s online accounts, digital devices, and the files managed by them. This includes, but is not limited to: emails, documents, images, audio, video, web pages, social media accounts, software licenses, financial accounts, online retailer accounts, online sales accounts, media accounts, domain names, and bill payment accounts. The following is a brief guide on how to start planning for your digital assets.
1. Inventory your digital assets.
Start developing your inventory by creating a list of all hardware assets–computers, flash drives, external hard drives, mp3 players, digital cameras, and other backup devices. Remember to also list any passwords and user names required to access any of these devices.
Next, inventory all important files stored on the hardware devices. Provide the location of the files along with any software that may be required to access the files. Backup all of your important files–tax records, medical information, pictures and other media, etc.–to one location for future convenience. An external USB drive, flash drive, or similar device would work well for this purpose.
Finally, list all of your online accounts and any necessary access information. This may include, but is not limited to: financial accounts like bank accounts, credit card accounts, brokerage accounts, and automatic bill payment accounts; email accounts; web page and blog accounts; online sales accounts; social media accounts like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn; online backup accounts like Google Docs and Dropbox; and online retailer and media accounts like Amazon, iTunes, etc.
2. Check for transferability or termination issues.
If you plan on transferring any accounts or their contents to loved ones or colleagues, check service agreements to determine whether the accounts are transferrable or whether they automatically terminate upon death. Many online accounts automatically terminate. You will need to provide current access information for successors to access these accounts.
These issues are especially important for individuals conducting business online. Due to potential non-transferability and termination issues, one should use a private email server instead of an online account. One should also check whether web pages and blogs, some of which may earn significant revenue, are transferrable upon the owner’s death. The domain names associated with these assets may also have considerable value–directions for continued operation and the renewal of ownership rights should be provided with access information. Finally, for those that maintain online sales accounts, providing access will be imperative so that business partners or loved ones can follow up with pending orders or close the accounts.
3. Reduce your inventory and any instructions to an easily accessible format.
This is one of the most important steps. Provide notes regarding what accounts will need immediate attention, perhaps ranking or organizing them by priority or type of account. Note any files or other assets that you would like to pass on to loved ones, and any other files that should not be deleted. This may be simplified by backing up all important files in a single location on a single device. Update the inventory and instructions regularly as accounts and access information change.
If you own a website or blog that you would like to remain operational, provide your intentions and any necessary instructions. You may also want to provide instructions for the notification of friends and other acquaintances after you are gone. Family members could access your email account and send a notification email to friends. Create and update a list of contacts for this purpose. Social media accounts may also remain active and used for memorial purposes if desired.
4. Store an updated inventory and any additional information in a safe and accessible location.
A safe deposit box or in a vault with your files at a law firm may be good locations. If kept in another location, disclose the location to your attorney or another trusted individual who can tell your successors at the appropriate time. Make sure the information is not only safe, but readily accessible by a third party when necessary.
5. Update your estate plan.
Planning for digital assets may necessitate reviewing your overall estate plan. Due to the constantly changing nature of these assets, it may be best to charge an individual that has expertise or a working knowledge of technology with handling your digital estate. This may not be the person currently chosen to handle your other assets. In addition to choosing an individual or entity to handle this task, you will have to provide the appropriate authority to do so. This may require an update to your power of attorney or will.
Due to the importance of the information commonly stored and managed online or on other digital devices, planning for digital assets is a necessity. To avoid additional headaches for loved ones, start creating an inventory of digital assets and any necessary access information as soon as possible. This information, like information regarding important tangible assets, will significantly lessen the burden associated with managing your estate when you are gone.