Living Life in the Cloud: Estate Planning for Digital Assets

By Brianne Kaufman

Most Americans now live double lives: the physical and the digital. We exist in the physical world, but we also exist as digital presences in a vast online bazaar. And some of us are a combination of 1’s and 0’s that add up to unexpected profit.

Think about this: how much of your life is spent online? How many accounts do you have floating around on the internet bearing your credit card number and thousands of dollars’ worth of purchases?

In 2013, McAfee did a consumer study in which they found that nearly ninety percent of consumers own multiple digital devices. Fifty-one percent of those consumers spent fifteen hours or more on those digital devices for personal use each week.

The amazing, jaw-dropping fact is that the study showed that on average we have over $35,000 worth of assets stored on our devices, including all those “must-have” Apps downloaded from the itunes store, videos, and music. Domain names created by a deceased person are also a new area worthy of consideration in the field of digital assets. One of these domain names ended up being worth ten million dollars to an estate.

Now, think about this: what happens to all your digital merchandise, not to mention your Facebook, Twitter, email, and on-line bank accounts when you die? The answer is that they continue to exist in an inaccessible limbo, with zero value to your estate.

Most terms of service contracts issued by account providers state that only the registered user can access the account. This makes it difficult for family members to gain access to data, such as pictures and videos, that could provide comfort in the wake of a loved one’s death, especially if an account is set to Private. Additionally, federal laws such as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act may make it illegal to access the user’s account with their username and password.

Furthermore, access to the email account of a deceased loved one can help a personal representative during the probate process by unearthing potential creditors. Email correspondence may reveal digital invoices, thus making it easier to track down the potential creditors of the estate.

The solution to the problem of accounts that are tricky to access? A durable power of attorney is certainly a viable option. This document gives a trusted family member permission to  access and manage your digital presence after your death. It’s also important to inventory your digital presence with a complete list of passwords and inform your loved ones of the location of the list.

Our digital selves are infinite. Most of are physical selves aren't that lucky, but we can help plan for the ultimate destination of our lives in the digital sphere.

The above information is intended for informative purposes only and is not legal advice. For advice on your specific situation, please contact an experienced elder law attorney in your area.

Image: Courtesy of Hubspot.com

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