The increasing presence of technology in our everyday lives introduces a new, important question: What happens to our digital assets when we die?
Much of our work and personal lives depend on or are documented within some type of digital workspace. Online activity and interactions produce data and create our footprint in the digital world. Within this online world, we may have ownership and usage rights over assets that exist in a non-tangible form. Some digital assets may have revenue-generating properties, such as a business email, client lists, web accounts, or business social media platforms. Alternatively, digital assets may have social or sentimental value, such as a personal social media account or photo albums stored digitally. More recent digital assets to consider include cryptographic assets which can be sold or traded, commonly referred to as non-fungible tokens, and cryptocurrencies which are digital payment systems stored in digital wallets. Accordingly, holistic estate planning should consider arrangements for digital assets.
Having a plan for digital assets can benefit the deceased, loved ones, and executors by minimizing certain legal and practical complications.
The legal authority to access a loved one’s digital assets can be questioned if there are no access rights set out in the deceased’s will. Some sites have estate planning options, for example, a Facebook user can choose to have their account memorialized or permanently deleted upon their death, and the user can also set a legacy contact — a person to look after the profile if the user chooses to have their account memorialized. Similarly, a Google account user can set an Inactive Account Manager who will gain access to the account information and decide to keep or delete the account. Unfortunately, not all digital assets have a memorialization option and an executor or loved one may run into challenges when trying to access these digital accounts. Regarding financial assets, a popular cryptocurrency called Bitcoin recently created a ‘Shared Wallet’ which can be accessed by more than one user and functions similarly to a traditional joint bank account, though some other cryptocurrencies do not have solutions as straightforward. By planning for the treatment of digital assets, including who has the authority to access them, one can minimize legal challenges and allow for the retrieval of important digital belongings.
Although important, simply having the legal right to be granted access may not guarantee one will gain access to an account of the deceased — practical issues can arise when these digital assets are password protected. To avoid this issue, it may be a good idea to keep an updated password list and access instructions with your will or in a place known by your executor.
Creating a comprehensive estate plan for digital assets can seem daunting — and it does have challenges. Safety concerns can arise when creating a list of information including usernames, passwords, and access instructions. A solution to this safety concern is to create different documents with elements of the log-in information stored in various locations known only to trusted people. This can help eliminate the risk of a security breach. Additionally, digital asset planning may be seen as an unwanted responsibility. If these assets are stored on various devices, if passwords are changed continuously, or if new accounts are often being created, it can be an extra routine effort to keep an updated list of this information. Nevertheless, if these assets are of high importance to the user or the user’s loved ones, creating a plan to minimize the legal and practical complications to allow for ease of access to the assets may outweigh the hassle it takes to create the plan.
Despite challenges, as the presence and power of digital assets in our everyday lives increase, so does the importance of including them in estate planning.
If you or a loved one would like to speak more about how to make a plan to facilitate the transfer of your digital assets upon your passing, do not hesitate to reach out to Barriston Law’s Wills & Estates department.
Written by Janice Mumberson and Blair Tinkham