Don’t Forget to Include Your Digital Assets In Your Estate Plan
If you’ve created an estate plan with us or anyone, it likely includes traditional wealth and assets like finances, real estate, personal property, and family heirlooms. But unless your plan also includes your digital assets, there’s a good chance this online property will be lost forever following your death or incapacity.
What’s more, even if these assets are included in your plan, unless your executor and/or trustee knows the accounts exist and how to access them, you risk burdening your family and friends with the often lengthy and expensive process of locating and accessing them. And depending on the terms of service governing your online accounts, your heirs may not be able to inherit some types of digital assets at all.
With our lives increasingly being lived online, our digital assets can be quite extensive and extremely valuable. Given this, it’s more important than ever that your estate plan includes detailed provisions to protect and pass on such property in the event of your incapacity or death.
Types of digital assets
Digital assets generally fall into two categories: those with financial value and those with sentimental value.
Those with financial value typically include cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, online payment accounts like PayPal, domain names, websites and blogs generating revenue, as well as other works like photos, videos, music, and writing that generate royalties. Such assets have real financial worth for your heirs, not only in the immediate aftermath of your death or incapacity, but potentially for years to come.
Digital assets with sentimental value include email accounts, photos, video, music, publications, social media accounts, apps, and websites or blogs with no revenue potential. While this type of property typically won’t be of any monetary value, it can offer incredible sentimental value and comfort for your family when you’re no longer around.
Owned vs licensed
Though you might not know it, you don’t actually own many of your digital assets at all. For example, you do own certain assets like cryptocurrency and PayPal accounts, so you can transfer ownership of these in a will or trust. But when you purchase some digital property, such as Kindle e-books and iTunes music files, all you really own is a license to use it. And in many cases, that license is for your personal use only and is non-transferable.
Whether or not you can transfer such licensed property depends almost entirely on the account’s Terms of Service Agreements (TOSA) to which you agreed (or more likely, simply clicked a box without reading) upon opening the account. While many TOSA restrict access to accounts only to the original user, some allow access by heirs or executors in certain situations, while others say nothing about transferability.
Carefully review the TOSA of your online accounts to see whether you own the asset itself or just a license to use it. If the TOSA states the asset is licensed, not owned, and offers no method for transferring your license, you’ll likely have no way to pass the asset to anyone else, even if it’s included in your estate plan.
To make matters more complicated, though your heirs may be able to access your digital assets if you’ve provided them with your account login and passwords, doing so may actually violate the TOSA and/or privacy laws. In order to legally access such accounts, your heirs will have to prove they have the right to access it, a process which up until recently was a major legal grey area. Fortunately, a growing number of states are adopting a law that helps clarify how your digital assets can be accessed in the event if your death or incapacity.
The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act
The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which has been adopted in most states so far, including North Carolina (NCGS Section 36.F) lays out guidelines under which fiduciaries, such as executors and trustees, can access these digital accounts. The Act allows you to grant a fiduciary access to your digital accounts upon your death or incapacity, either by opting them in with an online tool furnished by the service provider or through your estate plan.
The Act offers three-tiers for prioritizing access. The first tier gives priority to the online provider’s access-authorization tool for handling accounts of a decedent. For example, Google’s “inactive account manager” tool lets you choose who can access and manage your account after you pass away. Facebook has a similar tool that allows you to designate someone as a “legacy contact” to manage your personal profile. If an online tool is not available or if the decedent did not use it, the law’s second tier gives priority to directions given by the decedent in a will, trust, power of attorney, or other means. If no such instructions are provided, then the third tier stipulates the provider’s TOSA will govern access.
As long as you use the provider’s online tool – if one is available – and/or include instructions in your estate plan, your digital assets should be accessible per your wishes in states that have adopted the law. It is likely that all 50 states will adopt this law so even if the law isn’t on the books in a state in which you later reside, you should include these provisions in all documents when planning.
Your Estate plan and related documents
When you work with us, we incorporate these provisions in your wills(s), trusts(s), and financial powers of attorney as part of your plan. Be sure that you contact us as you Personal Family Lawyer® if you have any questions about your online property or how to include it in your estate plan.
Today, estate planning encompasses not just tangible property like finances and real estate, but also digital assets like cryptocurrency, blogs, and social media.
With so much of our lives now lived online, it’s vital you put the proper estate planning provisions in place to ensure your digital assets are effectively protected and passed on in the event of your incapacity or death. However, because many types of online assets have only been in existence for a handful of years, there are very few laws governing how they should be dealt with through estate planning. And due to their virtual and often anonymous nature, just locating and accessing some of these assets can be extremely difficult for those you leave behind.
Best practices for including digital assets in your estate plan
If you’re like most people, you probably own numerous digital assets, some of which likely have significant monetary and/or sentimental value. Other types of online property may have no value for anyone other than yourself or be something you’d prefer your family and friends not access or inherit. To ensure all of your digital assets are accounted for, managed, and passed on in exactly the way you want, you should take the following steps:
1. Create an inventory:
Start by creating a list of all your digital assets, including the related login information and passwords. Password management apps such as LastPass can help simplify this effort. From there, store the list in a secure location, and provide detailed instructions to your fiduciary about how to access it and get into the accounts. Just like money you’ve hidden in a safe, if no one knows where it is or how to unlock it, these assets will likely be lost forever.
2. Back up assets stored in the cloud:
If any of your digital assets are stored in the cloud, back them up to a computer and/or other physical storage device on a regular basis, so fiduciaries and family members can access them with fewer obstacles. That said, don’t forget to also include the location and login info of these cloud-based assets in case you don’t have a chance—or forget—to back them all up.
3. Add your digital assets to your estate plan:
Include specific instructions in your will, trust, and/or other estate planning documents about the heir(s) you want to inherit each asset, along with how you’d like the accounts managed in the future, if that’s an option. Some assets might be of no value to your family or be something you don’t want them to access, so you should specify that those accounts and files be closed and/or deleted by your fiduciary.
Do NOT provide the specific account info, logins, or passwords in your estate planning documents, which can be easily read by others. This is especially true for wills, which become public record upon your death. Keep this information stored in a secure place, and let your fiduciary know how to find and use it.
As you may know from working with me, I love technology! And, even for probate and directions to your heirs, there is technology to assist! Consider a service such as Directive Communication Systems to support you here. It’s also a good idea to include terms in your estate plan allowing your fiduciary to hire an IT consultant if necessary. This will help him or her manage and troubleshoot any technical challenges that come up, particularly with highly complex and/or encrypted assets.
4. Limit access:
In your plan, you should also include instructions for your fiduciary about what level of access you want him or her to have. For example, do you want your executor to be able to read all of your emails and social media posts before deleting them or passing them on to your heirs? If there are any assets you want to limit access to, we can help you include the necessary terms in your plan to ensure your privacy is honored.
5. Include relevant hardware:
Don’t forget that your estate plan should also include provisions for any physical devices—smartphones, computers, tablets, flash drives—on which the digital assets are stored. I use the Ledger Nano S for my currency. Having quick access to this equipment will make it much easier for your fiduciary to access, manage, and transfer the online assets.
6. Check service providers’ access-authorization tools:
Carefully review the terms and conditions for your online accounts. Some service providers like Google, Facebook, and Instagram have tools in place that allow you to easily designate access to others in the event of your death. If such a function is offered, use it to document who you want to have access to these accounts. Just make certain the people you named to inherit your digital assets using the providers’ access-authorization tools match those you’ve named in your estate plan. If not, the provider will probably give priority access to the person named with its tool, not your estate plan.
Truly comprehensive estate planning
With technology rapidly evolving, it’s critical that your estate planning strategies evolve at the same time to adapt to this changing environment. With us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can help you update your plan to include not only your physical wealth and property, but all of your digital assets, too.